Hello again :)

This story was written for Secret Santa exchange, but this time I was able to write it openly as a part of Texas Mountain Laurel series, because my giftee was my reader and I knew she wouldn't mind.

I might be forced to remove my stories from this site, and A03 permanently, because I will use them in my new original fiction.

I don't know when, and I have no means to send a warning before it happens. If any of you want to stay in touch, or have these stories as Word docs or PDFs, contact me at valaraucoramainenATyahooCOM, or valwenelATgmailCOM and put LEVERAGE in subject line. I will continue to write Leverage stories in this series, but email will be the only way to get them, so send your emails right now. I will collect your emails and in the future make a newsletter, and send stories to all of you in one go. Those new stories won't be published anywhere else - only you will get them.

Again, I don't know when it will be, so I maybe publish 1 or 2 more before that. I can't tell for sure.


The Return of The Sith Lord Job


Chapter 1.




On the third day, Eliot Spencer ate an apple.

He was pretty sure it was the third day. Days and nights had no significance in an abandoned apartment. He didn't count them.

He had chosen a corner of the empty room to be his lair. Turning to the left, he could see two boobs carved into a wall, with a hole from Parker's bullet. On his right, a window with shutters closed tight let only thin lines of sunshine in. Half-darkness and silence wrapped a cozy blanket around him. Bare parquet flooring under his back, however, poked at every unhealed cut, bruise and broken ribs.

Betsy would probably kill him, seeing him going for so long without any food and medication only a few days after the PVA fights and his leaving the Mass Gen. In her eyes, this – whatever this really was – would be just a slow ride to death. She would be right. In her world, things were neat, factual, lined up in a cause-effect order.

In his world, this meant life. This meant recovery.

She knew nothing about a survival mode, and what a body could do when everything else was shut down. No input. No digestion that would occupy and use precious resources. A body needed only water to live, and he gave it only that.

With nothing else to do, put on a fast, his body healed at twice the speed.

His mind was something completely different.

On the fifth day, he ate another apple.




"I'm bored."

Nate raised his gaze from his book. Parker stood before his desk, her hands on the small of her back, and her head a little tilted. He looked behind her, at a pile of locks and ropes made into a sculpture. The last time he checked, all parts were neatly lined up across the floor, and the thief was busy trying to lock pick them with her bare feet.

"Watch TV, Parker."


Yeah, he thought so. "Maybe you should try TV watching in your own place, for a change?"

"Don't have it."

He sighed and closed the book, then rested his back in the chair.

A small lamp on the table was enough to break all evening shadows, together with the light from the kitchen. Hardison's humming around the fridge showed Nate there was no chance he would manage to finish his book before Sophie came to pick him up. It was just a matter of time before Hardison came after Parker. He was certain he would find them both still here when they get back from dinner.

This had become part of his daily routine each day since Eliot left the Team and disappeared – tripping on his team members who were constantly here.

It was even worse yesterday. The Team gathered early in the morning, though they had nothing to do. He put a veto on any case without the hitter, and proclaimed a rest and recovery period. God knew they all needed it. Unfortunately, it didn't mean he would be left alone to recover himself – from fights, from almost bleeding out in tunnels beneath PVA ceremony, from them.

There was no briefing, and yet they stayed. He wouldn't mind Sophie hanging around, but Hardison and Parker, bored and restless, weren't so easy to endure for hours. It was Hardison who got the idea to have a Magnificent Seven marathon; only Florence and Eliot had watched the all seasons, the rest of the team stopped on Season 3.

That kept them occupied, but at the same time, it wasn't the best idea. All of them needed something that wouldn't remind them of Eliot's absence, and all the danger they survived. And of all the worries they all still shared.

Binge watching had lasted the entire day. Nate reminded them that Leverage Consulting and Associates didn't have working hours, and they didn't have to come to work today, but the results were pathetic.

Hardison's excuse today was a removal of Eliot's hospital bed. The hacker planned to transport it into the empty apartment near Mass Gen he had bought so they could monitor Eliot in his room, but it ended up in a back room of McRory's bar until he arranged the proper transport. It took only fifteen minutes this morning, and yet Hardison was still here, typing here and there, pretending to work on something.

Hardison returned to his laptop, carrying a plate with scrambled eggs. Nate checked his watch; Sophie was a little late, and he was hungry.

And Parker was still standing in front of him.

"Maybe you could go to the roof and check your ropes and other equipment there?"

"Already did that yesterday. Where are you and Sophie going?"

The frightening thought of dinner in four flashed before his eyes, but he smiled. "Nowhere in particular. The food isn't important, but our time alone is. We have to discuss a few private matters."

"Ah. Okay. But-"

Sophie arrived right on time to divert the thief's attention. Sophie waved to everybody, hung her coat and umbrella, and picked a cherry tomato from Hardison's plate while passing by.

Nate quickly got up. "No need to leave your coat, Sophie. I'm ready to go. You two, lock the place when you leave." An unspoken invitation for them to finally leave didn't move a muscle on Parker's face. She watched him as if he said nothing, as if she still waited for him to solve her boredom.

"As a matter of fact…" Hardison said, chewing for a moment. Nate motioned to Sophie to turn around and head for her coat. But too late. Hardison swallowed and continued, "I waited for all of us to be here. I have to show you something."

"It can wait."

"No it can't. Come here. Won't take a long."

Sophie changed her course and went to a sofa in front of the screens. "I'm not that hungry," she said. "What have you got, Hardison?"

Nate gave up and joined them. Parker huffed, too, and sat with them.

"I have… this." Hardison waved his hand to the screens, as if an eighth world's miracle would magically appear, but all they saw was a low quality recording of a few bushes by some pond.

"Fascinating," Sophie said, darting a glance to Nate sideways. "Care to expl-"

"Pay attention." Hardison clicked his remote and picture grew a little clearer; Nate saw passers-by and two dogs. There were even a few shapes on the water. Ducks, or swans maybe.

One more click, and two shapes standing on the bank came into focus. One smaller, with short blond hair, and one also blond but much taller… Nate almost cursed when he recognized her.

"Hardison, why are you spying on Florence and her husband?" he asked.


Parker didn't let him finish. She stood up and took a step closer to the screen. "This is Jethro?" Her voice was a combination of curiosity and immense coldness, and Nate sighed again.

"Knock it off, Parker. She is gone. She has her life, as we can see. Again, Hardison, why are we watching this?"

"Because we needed some sort of closure," the hacker said. "And because Eliot asked me to keep an eye on her when, if… when we were in tunnels and he locked me out and stayed to hold the door so we could get out. He, uhm – he asked me to take care of her… for him. And I was thinking…since he is gone, we can, we could, should-"

Nate heard enough. "Stop with that crap, Hardison. He isn't gone. He will come back when he decides he can."

"How can you be so sure? A lot happened, Nate. A lot."

Nate waved his hand to the eight marzipan pawns still lined up on the kitchen counter. Eliot left them for him when he left; it was a message and a promise.

Then he looked closer. Only five of them stood there. He glanced at Parker who first looked at her feet, then at the ceiling, and put her hands in her pockets.

"What?" she finally said. "They are delicious."

Hardison froze the two people on the screen with an impatient click. "Look, we can't be sure of anything when Eliot is in question," the hacker said. "Psychosis, anyone? He ain't himself. I'm still searching for him – and no, don't say: I told you not to – 'cause I have to do it. We have to know. Sophie, you know I'm right, tell him." Hardison looked at the grifter. "Sophie?"

But it seemed she didn't hear a single word the hacker said. Her head was tilted to one side a little, and her eyes, even keener than usual, bore into the two shapes on the screen with terrifying precision.

Nate glanced at the recording, then back at her. "What?" he asked. "Sophie, you there?"

Sharpness disappeared in a second; she blinked and smiled with her usual warmth. "Oh, nothing. I miss her, that's all."

Yet it wasn't just that. He nodded but looked again at the pair on the screen. Was he imagining, or there was something odd in their posture, some strange stiffness? Florence's hands hung by her body. They didn't reach one to another while they watched the ducks in the pond, didn't make even small, natural gestures. Almost like they-

"Nate." Sophie called and he stirred from his studying. "There's nothing wrong in checking on Eliot. I think you would be calmer if you knew he was alright, too."

He opened his mouth to tell them there wasn't any way that Eliot could be 'alright', at least not for now – but he shut his mouth and smiled instead. "Dinner?" he said. "We've got our closure. Florence is fine. I'm hungry. Nothing here that would keep us, well, here. Any of us."

Hardison nodded and left the remote, and for a long, long second Nate thought he would agree with 'any of us' part – but the hacker pulled his plate closer, sat more comfortably and raised his feet on the coffee table.

"In the next few days, we're bringing back our tall working desk here," Hardison said. "Sofa and coffee table have to go, no need for them anymore. We don't have guests who would sleep here."

So much for a day off.

At least he would have his evening off – if he hurried up before they thought of something else. He took Sophie's hand and tucked it under his arm, grabbing her coat along the way.

"See you tomorrow," I hope not again tonight was clear in his voice, but he knew it was another message lost in translation.




The abandoned apartment he had occupied was in an office building, and his nights were silent. No neighbors around him.

Silence came with twilight; silence and coldness. Days were much shorter. Tiny dust speckles that danced in sunshine, sparks he followed with his aching eyes for hours during the day, disappeared with the night.

During the day, they helped him disappear. When he sat still, when his breathing was as shallow as he could, dust would float in the ray of sunshine too slow for the eye to notice a movement. The shallower his breathing was, the longer he could keep them immobile – sometimes for hours. As the sun travelled, so did the rays move over the floor, passing him by only a couple of inches, and then climbing up the wall to the bullet hole.

His mind was only a grain of dust caught in sunshine while those long hours lasted. But when the rays came closer, passing like Parker's laser beams in front of his face, his breath would disturb the dust, send them on a frantic dance.

That was the time, every day, he had to pull himself from that emptiness, and to force his mind to return to the empty apartment – because every time that happened, he thought that even the dust knew enough about him not to settle on him.

Sensory deprivation put order to his thoughts and erased the cacophony. He could process one thought at the time, slowly. People he killed. Check. Woman he lost. Check. People he sacrificed. Check. Woman he lost. Check. Hours and hours of it.

He endured days staring at the dust, but nights were unbearable.

There was no forgiveness he could ask, nor did he want to, even if he could. Only thing he could give to people he killed, was his memory. He never forgot a single victim's face.

The only thing he could give them in return, for taking their lives, was his own torment: pain and guilt, unleashed in full force. He forced himself to feel.

The first five days he barely moved from his corner. Bathroom and water were the only trips until on the sixth day he noticed that his legs were unsteady and every movement was slow and weak.

He came here to destroy himself - and rebuild himself - so he could return to the Team and keep them alive. Destroying himself went well. Rebuilding would be tricky.

He ate his third apple, watching the slits in the shutters darkening, and then he slowly got up.

Parquet creaked, but there were no people in the building anymore to hear it.

He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and raised his hands in Qi Shi, the first position of Tai Chi. Rebuilding would be a tough one.




Hardison's transport service people arrived at an unearthly hour. Clouds made the early morning even darker, and the open door of an apartment let the coldness drizzle from the corridor.

A massive hangover with a headache, unexplainable because he drank only a few shots last night, settled on Nate's shoulders and neck. The cheerful chatting of Hardison's people, along with loud slams while they removed the sofa, banging into every possible obstacle, drilled entire corridors through his skull. Vibrations stayed and multiplied.

Parker arrived first. She paid no attention to the fact that Sophie slept over, so Nate could ignore her and concentrate on the coffee machine. Yet, before he could prepare coffee, Hardison arrived, and with him, the power went off.

"It won't last long," Hardison said, dragging wires from the power box to the middle of the room, where two guys were assembling their tall desk. "I have to connect everything, so give me an hour or two. Go get some coffee in the bar. Unless you want to join in."

Right, that should surely be the highlight of the day – making Hardison's desk twinkle.

Nate waved his offer off – still not quite able to arrange words into sentences – and headed to the McRory's bar. Sophie and Parker followed.

Cora wasn't at the bar. Her shift must've been afternoon and evening this week, and it was good. Her waiter Mike was here, and Nate couldn't remember if he ever heard him say a word, except 'good day', and 'usual?' Mike took care of a few early birds, and smell of fresh brewed coffee lit a few more lamps in Nate's brain.

If only Sophie and Parker stayed silent. If only Mike didn't-

"Good morning, Mr. Ford."

"Morning, Mike."

For years now, that would've been it – he would have his coffee, spiced without a question, and Mike would return behind the counter. But today – of all days - Mike stayed by their table, fidgeting with a tray.

No, Sophie, don't

Sophie took her cappuccino and smiled at the waiter. "Is there something wrong?"

Mike put the tray on their table and sat. "I'm not sure, Miss Devereaux, but knowing you deal with other people's problems, I thought you might know what to do – or at least tell me something clever."

Nate resisted the urge to withdraw into the wall behind his back. "You're quite…eloquent this morning." Sophie's foot slammed at his, and he shut up.

"It's a small neighborhood trouble, nothing alarming. Nothing like things you deal with usually. There's that new Barrel shop, McTavish & Sons, built on the old construction ground at the end of a block."

"Oh, I've seen it!" Sophie said. "Lots of wood around. There used to be a small bakery, until it burned, right? It was an empty spot for years, if I recall correctly."

Mike nodded. "They rented the place and built barrel workshop, only a week ago. They produce all barrel sizes, from small souvenirs, to 100 gallon ones."

"And the problem is?" Nate said.

"Their workers. A bunch of loud, redheaded bullies – probably brothers because all of them are McTavish – who have been terrorizing the neighborhood since the day one." Mike looked over his shoulder as if expecting a horde to barge in, then continued in a lower voice. "I'm worried about Cora," he almost whispered. "Every day when she closes the bar, she takes a daily turnover to deposit. The closest bank is Wellford & Sons – door to door with the McTavish & Sons workshop. They noticed her, and started waiting for her when she passes-"

A loud snort stopped Mike mid-sentence.

They all turned to Parker. Her snort turned into a cackle. "Don't be silly," she said. "They aren't after Cora. They are after that bank."

"Ah, Parker, we can't project our-" Sophie started, then paused. "Normal people don't usually hunt banks, you know? Especially those with legitimate business who-"

Parker slowly put her hands on the table, and went very still. "Rented, not bought place," she stated calmly. "Loud business that covers any sounds, including drills. Constant watch of the surroundings and neighbors, masked as flirting. Construction leftovers which-"

"No," Mike said. "It's worse than a bank robbery. I think they're killers. And I'm not the only one."

Nate held his cup of coffee tighter and squinted. The Team was without a hitter, and even a small band of bullies might be too much for them now, unless they managed to deal with their business and force them to move. But killers? Impossible for them now.

"I can't prove anything," Mike continued, taking his silence as an invitation to go on. "I doubt there is even a body there anymore. But I saw a man walking into that workshop, and he never came back-"

Parker raised her hand. "Except maybe as a bank customer, going underground through-"

"Knock it off, Parker," Nate stopped her. "Let Mike finish."

"Thank you. I was-damn." A guest knocked on the desk, calling for him, and Mike jumped up. "I'll be back," he said, hurrying to serve him.

Sophie didn't lose any time. "Can we do anything to help?" she asked when a grumble of a coffee machine from the bar was loud enough so Mike couldn't hear her.

"I won't think about anything until we hear the entire story," Nate said, "and even then I'll think twice. Just last week all of us were in Mass Gen. Bullets, knives, you name it. I'm not sure we can handle a gang of…"

"Bank robbers?" Parked chimed in hopefully.

"Bullies. For now, only bullies. We'll see about that killer part."

Mike came back in a minute, carrying a coffee for himself. "Where was I? Ah, the man who never came back from the Barrel shop. Jesse saw him. You know Jesse? He is a regular here, a cousin of old Pete, twice removed-"

"Get to the point. He saw what, exactly?"

"A tall, unknown, dark-haired man parked his car in front of the shop and went in. Jesse was with his retriever. Dog owners use a small lawn beside the shop as a playground. He talked with Meghan – and her poodle Hugo – while the dogs played, so he saw after fifteen minutes one of McTavishes coming out, taking that man's car, and driving away."

Nate sighed. "There are numerous explanations for that."

"Yes, but Jesse was a cop. He stayed, waiting to see dark-haired man going out. He never did. He stayed until closing hours, first sitting on a bench at the playground, and then watching from the store across the street so they couldn't see him. They closed the shop and left."

"It's cold outside," Sophie said. "Maybe that man went out with a cap or hat, so he couldn't see his hair color, mistaking him for one of workers, those red-headed guys?"

"Negative. Jesse said it wasn't possible."

Parker raised her hand again. "Maybe the dark-haired guy is still underground, digging a tunnel towards the bank and-"

Nate scowled at her, and she lowered her hand. But though his headache wasn't any better, and he definitely didn't want to get any job right now, he had to admit he felt a tiny spark of interest flickering.

"Jesse didn't remember a license plate, and though he asked his buddies about that model of a car, it was a dead end. Toyota Camry; seven of them were reported stolen around that time." Mike pulled out a piece of paper and put it in front of Nate. "That's the car. Maybe Hardison can do something?"

"And what do you want from us? If you're worried about Cora, we can walk with her for a couple of days when she goes to Wellford & Sons."

"They have been coming to the bar every day for the past few days, on their way to becoming regulars. People avoid them; they are loud, rude, always looking for a fight. Very soon it will become bad for business here, not to mention Cora is in their sights every day."

"Okay, we can be here more often, besides taking her to the bank. But we can't take any real job now… we're not complete." Nate endured two sideways stares. "And we're busy with real cases, so…"

"Maybe there isn't anything to do. Jesse might be mistaken. As you said, there might've been numerous other explanations. But I would be calmer if you would take a look. That's all."

In a moment's silence, Nate could clearly hear the banging of hammers from above. Maybe if they did a small recon, Hardison and Parker would consider that a working day, and go home after they finished? It was worth a try.

"Okay Mike. We'll go there and see what that's all about. Tomorrow's Monday, so we will be there when they open the door."

Parker's gleaming face was not a good sign.




"No, Parker, you are home because you aren't needed, and not because I think you'd drill for secret passages to the bank."

"I wasn't planning any drilling," a sulky voice said in their earbuds.

"Good for you!" Nate poured a smirky cheer in his voice. "Now go upstairs to my bedroom – I have new harnesses there that need checking. That will keep you occupied and happy until we're back."

"Gah," an unhappy voice said then disappeared, leaving only silence on her end of the comm. She must've pulled the earbud out.

And that was a good thing. Nate was too busy with Sophie to pay any attention to a sulking thief. They were both already in McTavish & Sons Barrel workshop. Hardison was in front, hacking their Wi-Fi, trying to get to security cameras.

"Oh. My. God." Sophie flew to another small barrel, and Nate set his face into shoot-me-now expression of a depressed husband. He followed her, dragging his feet on a dazzlingly clean floor. He chose a limping, well-suited CEO of Whatever for this case, and he swirled his walking cane in his fingers. Sophie's high heels clickity-clacked, followed with an occasional thump of his cane while they mapped out the store. A hand-saw screeched in the background, and someone with a feel for music could come up with a pretty good beat.

It was the fourteenth barrel in a row that drew Sophie's voice into an unpleasantly high pitch of excitement, and their salesman – tall, heavily built, and red-headed - finally gave up and withdrew to another customer.

In her frantic flying from barrel to barrel, Sophie covered the entire store, so Nate could observe every detail. And all people. A level of testosterone was hitting the roof in here. He had seen five brothers, or close cousins: two here in the store, and three in a back room that looked to be a workshop, working with wood. A small woman stood at the counter; her nametag said Noreen. Her smile never changed, yet her eyes blinked in a rapid, nervous series. Her hair was darker than the others', but the family resemblance was clear.

"Look at this one, darling!" Sophie chirped over another damn wooden thing. "It has little engraved letters in some strange-"

"In fact," a deep male voice said behind them, "it's not engraved. It's wood burning, hand-made. Every piece of-"

"Oh, a pyrography?"

An older redheaded man, probably McTavish of McTavish and Sons, blinked at her. "Pyrowhat?"

"Never mind. I'm in awe, dear Sir." Sophie set her accent from Slightly British to Are You Fucking Kidding Me Your Royal Highness, and the man straightened his back in a second. "Would you mind showing me the place where this magic is born? I'd be delighted to take a peek. Besides, I'm thinking of a huge order – a huge order, and maybe a long term cooperation."

"We don't usually take customers to our-"

She waved her eyelashes and set her smile to tropical, and the man sighed. He reached with his hand. "My name is Peter McTavish, at your service."

Sophie gave him tips of her fingers, and for the moment Nate thought he would bend over and kiss her hand. "Fiona Ainsworth," she said. "Now, would you be so kind…?"

"Yeah, sure. Follow me."

Nate waved the cane at them. "You go dear," he said. "I'll wait here. And try not to buy the whole place, please."

He watched them leave through the arch that separated a spacious workshop from the store, and continued to drag his feet from corner to corner, barrel to barrel.

A shriek-y barking from his earbud for a moment covered all the sounds in the shop, and his ears buzzed.

"Control that banshee, Hardison," he muttered in his scarf. "I can't hear a word."

"Easier said than done," Hardison's voice grumbled over the barking. "I have no power over-oh, c'mon! He is twice your size, you can't attack- Hugo wait!"

Nate rearranged his scarf and used the movement to pull out his earbud. Hardison's troubles with a hysteric poodle he borrowed from Meghan in McRory's might've been amusing, but Noreen behind the counter was talking with her brother, and he had to hear it.

A huge shelf behind the counter was filled with souvenirs, and that gave him an excuse to come closer.

Barking was heard from the open door now. Hardison had positioned himself on the same bench Jesse took while monitoring the shop, in a middle of a lawn, in front of the door and only slightly to the right of them. He had his laptop with him and a cup of warm coffee. Expensive, stylish coat, and glasses screamed a benign hipster louder than any banshee ever could.

Good thing it wasn't raining today. For now.

By the time he came to the counter, the conversation had ended. The brother left to serve another customer.

Nate appeared to study miniature barrels on the shelf, but actually he watched Noreen. She typed something, not paying any attention to him. Just for a test, he intensified his gaze at her, and she stirred in a second. Good spatial awareness. And also, a probable sign of abuse. People who expected attacks from an early age usually could sense when being watched or approached. Yet, simply living with a lot of older brothers might've trained her, too.

But a happy childhood with a loving but playful bunch of brothers wouldn't put this caution in her eyes. She was aware he watched her, and he could feel her alertness going up.

"Can you wrap those three small barrels for me before my wife comes back?" he said with his warmest voice. "I'd like to surprise her."

"Of course." An equally warm smile came as response, and she relaxed. She wasn't much over Hardison's age, Nate could see now, when her eyes - strangely dark, almost black - weren't darting all around, as if checking the position of her brothers. She was too shy and too quiet to be engaged in a conversation that would reveal something important. Yet, he could try.

"Your family been in this business long?"

And the caution was back in an instant. "My father inherited it from my grandma," Noreen said. "Would you like a simple, paper wrap? It doesn't have our logo, nothing to guess what's inside."

"Sure, that's a good idea."

The barking from outside stopped, and he used her turning around to fetch papers to put his earbud back in. Sophie's chatting with the oldest McTavish was still warm and polite, so nothing to worry about.

There was no need to linger here any longer. He saw everything he needed to see, and if Hardison was done with security cameras, they were ready to-

"Hey!" a grumble in his earbud wasn't Hardison. The voice was deeper. "Whatcha watching? Is that our shop on your screen? Callum, come 'ere!"

"I have no idea what you're talking about. Back off – don't touch my laptop or I will-"

A loud thump was followed by Hardison's grunt of pain.

Nate turned sideways so he could see through the front door out of the corner of his eye. Two large men blocked his view of Hardison, their fists and feet slamming at the hacker.

"Gonna teach ya a lesson, ya twally-washer!"

Behind the fighting group, passer-bys stopped and watched. This was going south very fast.

"Sophie, come here. Hardison, listen up," Nate said while limping toward the door. "We'll play Roundabout Victim, version three."

Even before he reached the door, and Sophie joined him, the noise from outside changed.

"Help! Help!" Hardison sounded terrified now.

"You sonofa-!" Dull sounds of fists hitting flesh covered Hardison's yelps, and Nate almost forgot to limp, speeding up.

He knew they shouldn't have got into trouble without a hitter to cover their backs, but this was way too soon.

Noreen and her father barged through the door a second after they flew out and saw the scene on the lawn.

McTavish No.1 - by the looks and posture the oldest brother - hovered over kneeling Hardison. It looked like Hardison was hugging himself, protecting his ribs and stomach from the hits, but a corner of a laptop was seen under his coat; Hardison held it tight, hiding it from the eyes of a quickly gathering crowd.

McTavish No.2, two steps away from them, tried to keep Hugo at bay. The poodle jumped and barked hysterically, and with Hardison's calls for help, the level of noise became frantic.

"Somebody call the Police!" Hardison cried. "Help! They're robbing me!"

Nate turned to Noreen and their father and put an aghast disbelief on his face. "Are they your sons?!"

"Well, yes, but I'm sure there's an expla-" An explanation they couldn't allow them to give.

"Stop them! They are hitting that man! This is unbelievable!"

McTavish No.2, deranged with the noise, made the mistake of his life, and pushed Hugo with his foot. He did that pretty gently, in fact, but Sophie didn't need more.

She screamed. "Oh my god, he kicked the puppy! Oh my god, he kicked the puppy! Oh my god, he kicked the puppy!" Sophie's wailing drew even more people around them.

"That dog was trying to bite me!" McTavish No.2 yelled.

"He had our cameras on his laptop!" McTavish No.1 yelled even louder, but stopped hitting Hardison.

The hacker crawled a few feet away from him, reaching for Hugo with one hand – the other still clutching his laptop – like a dying man would reach for his long lost love - and the crowd reacted. Two guys stepped forward and scowled at McTavish brothers, while one woman ran to Hugo.

"I can't believe this! Poor boy!" Sophie ran to Hardison and helped him up. An older woman joined her; they helped him walk away from the lawn, closer to the crowd. The woman who took Hugo hurried after them.

"Cancel my orders, Miss," Nate said when father McTavish opened his mouth to speak. They needed only five more seconds of confusion for Hardison to escape. "I won't shop here ever again! I hope that man presses charges. Unbelievable!"

"My son said something about a laptop and our cameras-"

Nate spread his arms and looked at the closest women. "His son kicked the puppy, for god's sake!"

Murmur of anger rose around them; people nodded.

"It's just sad," Nate shook his head, turned around and left, slowly, with a heavy limp.

Sophie and Hardison passed behind the row of bystanders, advancing slowly. They had a hundred feet more before they passed by the bank and disappeared around the corner. One minute, maybe more. They would need another minute to get rid of the woman who carried Hugo – only after that he could join them, not before.

Nate didn't turn back, and every step felt as if it took a month to make it. The hairs on his neck stood up. He waited for a hand to grab his shoulder and stop him, but the only sounds behind him were of an angry crowd spitting accusations and outrage on the McTavishes.

He counted steps and deliberately slowed them down, erasing from his posture every sign of retreat, and yet he felt someone's eyes on his back. The urge to look back was almost unbearable; someone in the arguing group studied him.

Someone was suspicious.




He found Sophie and Hardison, alone with a confused Hugo, on a small street at the far end of the block.

It took only one look at Hardison to know that the fight wasn't just a quarrel. A split lip and already swollen eye were visible, but his posture showed much more. He was sitting bent, clutching his shoulder and ribs, and breathing in shallow gasps.

"They booted him," Sophie said. "We should take him to hospital."

"It's just a few bruises, Soph. Knock it off."

Her lips thinned. "Don't play Eliot on us."

Nate stepped in and took the laptop from him. Hardison needed a breather before they tried to reach McRory's, so he didn't try to pull him up. "What the hell happened back there?"

Now was Hardison's turn for lip thinning, just in his case it was followed with a pained grimace. "One of them came behind my back. I didn't see him. I didn't notice him watching my screen. I was… reckless."

No, he wasn't. He was just without back up, alone, not used to monitoring his surroundings.

They weren't expecting any trouble on a job that wasn't yet a real job, but Nate knew the only one reckless here was him, not Hardison. He should've been prepared for everything. He wasn't.

"Let's go. We'll talk later, when we get you home and patch you up. Sophie, you take Hugo." He gave the laptop to Sophie and pulled Hardison to his feet.

Step by step, with the hacker's arm over his shoulder for support, they headed home, taking a long turn. He couldn't be sure if they might be followed. It took more than half an hour to make what was usually a ten minute walk to their building.

They stopped on the back street; Nate left to return Hugo to Meghan, and to see if path was clear. The McTavishes had nothing that could connect them with McRory's bar, but this time he didn't want to risk anything.

Ten minutes later, when they stepped out of the elevator and into their corridor, Nate allowed himself to relax. Hardison also let out a long, relieved sigh, though somewhat wheezing.

Nate even had to suppress a smirk, when he remembered they could call Betsy to take a look at Hardison's cuts and bruised ribs – that would be a show that would lighten anybody's spirit…. But they were only three steps from the door of A2 when a long scream came from the apartment.

It was unmistakably Parker's voice. And it was full of pain.