The rest of the story—and a short epilogue. Couldn't resist.


Eliot ran through downtown Franklinsburg and along the river, enjoying the early morning alone time with no voices in his ears and no ulterior motive but to stretch his legs and let his mind unwind.

Not every job knotted him up like this, but some did, even the ones that hadn't been particularly dangerous or taken a sudden nose dive. He hadn't taken a job this personally since he'd helped rescue a horse for a family he'd once hoped could be his. He'd walked away from them again, for pretty much the same reasons he had before.

Plus, his definition of family had changed.

He wondered if Jo was going to find something else to fight for, now that she'd found her family. He thought she might. Once you knew you could make a difference, it was hard to stop.

He headed back to the hotel.

After taking a shower and putting on clothes that weren't in the Sicherheit dress code, he let himself into the suite. He found Nate reading a newspaper over coffee, Hardison rummaging in the minifridge, and Jo coming out of one of the bedrooms.

"Morning," she said, shutting the door behind her. She went to the 'fridge and pulled out a diet Pepsi.

Eliot poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the minibar. "Where is everyone?"

"Sophie came in here twenty minutes ago and took all the pens, a ream of paper, and the spare laptop," said Nate. "Anything else happened before coffee."

"Ron and Mike dropped in to see if you and Jo wanted to go to Dermott's for a tag team brawl," said Hardison. "But you'd already left, and Jo . . ."

"Decided to use the treadmill in the hotel gym," she said, not needing to add that she wanted to stay close for Dougie's sake.

The hacker shook his head. "I don't know how you people can run in straight lines before 8am, much less beat on each other."

"It's a gift," said Eliot. "The kid still asleep?"

Her smile glowed with affection. "Out like a light. We stayed up and long time talking last night."

Nate took a swallow of coffee. "I don't suppose anyone knows where Parker is?"

Eliot did, more or less, but he didn't want to spoil the surprise. It wasn't often he and the thief worked a side job together, but this one had been a pleasure.

"She headed out last night, late." Hardison shrugged. "Said she had business."

"Business?" Nate put down his cup. "What business?"

"Nothing that's gonna cause trouble," said Eliot. "For us," he added.

Nate gave him a look. "I'm going to need some details, here."

Before Eliot could answer, Parker appeared in the doorway. "I had to see a couple of people. Here," she said, tossing Jo a bulging, oversized, padded envelope.

Jo shot Parker a wary look, and looked inside. Her jaw dropped. "Where did all this come from?"

"Mrs. Marten had some jewelry that wasn't costume—her pearls were vintage Mikimoto—and Mr. Marten had some old coins in the safe and a couple of first editions in the library. There was a Canaletto in the dining room that hadn't been switched out yet . . . and a few other odds and ends, too."

Nate looked at Eliot, eyebrows raised.

"Wiped 'em out," said Eliot, smiling over his cup. "Everything we could find."

"Good," said Nate.

Jo opened her mouth, closed it, and held the envelope out. "Hardison?"

He took it with a big grin. "One college fund coming up."

"Nate?"

"You'll never touch a cent of it."

"Thank you." Jo went to the thief and stood just inside a normal person's comfort zone. "Thanks, Parker."

"I didn't do it for you." But Parker was smiling.

They looked at each other, these two women who shouldn't have understood each other at all, and Jo leaned close to Parker's ear and whispered something that Eliot couldn't catch. They both nodded and Parker walked away, still smiling.

Sophie came into the suite and did a double take as the thief passed her. "Is something wrong with Parker?"

Eliot snorted and ducked as Jo swatted at him.

Sophie shook her head and went to talk to Hardison.

Eliot nudged Jo with an elbow. "What was that all about?" he asked in a low voice.

"What?"

"You and Parker."

"Oh. I told her that the advocate job was for life."

He wondered if that was for Dougie's sake or for Parker's. Knowing Jo, it was for both.

Sophie finished with Hardison and looked up. "Jo, when you have a minute, could you please help me with the paperwork for the adoption? I'm buried in ICPC requirements alone."

Eliot frowned. "IC . . . ?"

"Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children," said Sophie. "It's all strictly regulated now, so people can't do what we're going to do anyway."

"Shortsighted of them," said Nate, straight faced.

"Mmm, I know. I'm just finishing up my—I mean, Samantha Parkington's recommendation. It's glowing, but not too glowing. Mr. Thwaite said he'd fax his over this afternoon . . . but we still need to work out the homestudy report: your personal background, motivation, parenting style—come on, it won't fill itself out," she said, making a shooing motion. "You, too Nate—you'll know what answers will work best. There's family environment, employment, significant others . . . " her voice continued as she walked out, assuming the others would follow.

Jo raised her eyebrows. "Breaking the law is hard work."

"You don't know the half of it," said Nate, with feeling.

She grinned. "Sophie won't like it if you scare me straight before paperwork is done."

He chuckled and offered her an arm. She took it and they walked out together.

Eliot and Hardison exchanged amused looks. "Looks like your part's done," said the hacker. "You driving back today?"

"No, I'm helping Hannah move. Pullman's with her now, but he's leaving this afternoon."

"You expecting trouble?"

"Always do. But I'd help anyway—she's good people. You in?"

"Yeah, sure. I can't do anything until Sophie finishes up, anyway. " He patted Dougie's college fund. "Let me just finish checking something while I'm thinking about it." The NYSE scrolled down and Hardison made humming noises under his breath. "That should do it," he said to himself. "It's all about the diversification, baby."

"So Dougie's set?" asked Eliot.

Hardison smiled. "By the time I'm through, he's gonna be able to buy Harvard." He closed down the window. "It's kind of different, isn't it—having a client like us."

"Jo's not a criminal. She can't even lie."

"You know that's not what I meant. She came at it from the other side, maybe . . . but she's one of us where it counts. Know what I'm saying? Be nice if she stuck around." Hardison gave him a serious look. "Be nice if you let her."

Eliot returned the look. "You ready?"

"Yeah. Think Hannah will pay us in cookies? Not that I need paying or anything, but maybe out of the goodness of her heart?"

Eliot frowned. "I think she said something about peach cobbler."

"Real peach cobbler? With real peaches? My nana used make—with cinnamon and all that?" Hardison jumped up. "What are we waiting for?"

OOOOOoooooOOOOO

Eliot pulled up his truck in front of The Gym. It'd become a habit over the past year, checking in after coming home from a job.

He knew habits like this could be dangerous . . . but maybe less dangerous than being alone. The team had taught him that, even before Jo had come along and proved it.

And it was good to know that someone—a couple someones—cared if he came back in one piece.

And he was doing a little more than just keeping in touch. He sparred with Jo a couple times a week and played target for her self—defense classes when he could, either at The Gym or at one of Maya's shelters. And once or twice a month, he'd pick up Dougie from school and take him to Greer's Family Restaurant for a slice of pecan pie and hugs from the head cook.

It was way too late for that today—probably past Dougie's bedtime—but Ron was still on desk.

"Hey, Eliot," he said, with a welcoming smile. "When did you get back?"

"About two hours later than I should have. I still feel like I'm circling up there." At least Parker and Hardison hadn't been on his flight—for some reason, they'd grabbed the first plane home the minute the job was done.

Ron nodded. "I'm about to leave—are you here for a workout, or would you like to go check on Dougie with me? He'd love to see you. Jo, too, if she's back."

"Sure." Something in the other man's tone caught Eliot's attention. "Jo's on a job?" She'd become a retrieval specialist after all, in her own way—helping victims of abuse escape their bad situations. Mostly, she worked at the shelters, talking about her own experiences and encouraging people to discover options they didn't know they had. She was good at convincing people that they were worth saving.

But sometimes, it got messy.

"Yeah. Four kids under ten and both sides of the family defending the abuser—literally. Jo's been sleeping on the couch with the panic button in her hand for the past two nights. But it should be over one way or another tonight."

Eliot shook his head. "You're a strong man, Ron."

He shrugged. "This is who she is—she's doing what she needs to do. And she's never alone, or careless. She plans these things down to the last detail—I think she consulted Nate about this one."

Eliot raised his eyebrows. He knew Hardison sometimes helped out with surveillance, but he didn't know Nate was taking an interest.

"How's Dougie handling it?" he asked.

"I know he's anxious, because he told me—it's a big deal that he knows it's safe to talk about how he feels. He still goes to ground—we've worked out ways for him to tell us where he is without leaving notes—for me, mostly, since Jo has that weird radar of hers."

"Kids and thieves," said Eliot. The team would pay good money to know how she did that. Sophie suspected that Parker was paying Jo not to teach them.

Ron nodded. "But I think Dougie understands—he told me the other day that it's not just important to her, it's important, period. Besides, he knows he comes first with Jo, no matter what. She hasn't missed one of his school conferences or games yet."

"Bet you haven't, either." It hadn't taken long for Dougie to warm up to Ron, who made sure the kid knew that he was liked for himself, not just because of Jo.

"Nope," said Ron, cheerfully. "The Gym Rats are playing this Saturday morning, if you want to help cheer. Dougie's pitching the second half."

"I'll be there. I'll tell the others." He waited until Ron gave last minute instructions to Damien and they walked out together. "Your place or hers?"

"Ours," said Ron. "Want to be best man?"

Eliot stopped in his tracks. "Yeah?"

A smile bloomed across Ron's face. "Yeah."

"That's great, man!" He clapped the taller man on the shoulder. "How'd you get her to say yes?"

"Dougie asked her for me." He started laughing. "With these great, big, puppy dog eyes and my grandmother's ring."

Eliot grinned. "You brought out the big guns."

"Yes, sir. And it worked, once she stopped crying."

"Well, I'd be honored to stand up with you."

"Good—'cause you'd make one ugly bridesmaid."

Ron let them into the apartment and reset the alarm. The first thing Eliot noticed was that the place looked and felt like a real home, from the comfortable furniture and warm colors to the Disney videos on the coffee table.

The second was Parker.

"Shhh," she said, setting aside her newest practice lock and clicking her stopwatch. "They're all asleep. Jo, too."

"How is she?"

"Beat. Tired beat," she added. "Not beat beat. Well, a little bit, maybe."

Ron nodded. "Excuse me—I'm going to go check on everyone."

Eliot sat down in the easy chair across from the couch. "This why you took the redeye last night?"

"Dougie called me. Jo had a tough job going down today, and he didn't want her to worry about him—Ron had to work, Mike was with Jo, and Maya had to facilitate stuff. So here I am."

"You watched Cody, too?"

"Sure. We watched Peter Pan and had Chinese for dinner. I taught them how to use chopsticks."

Eliot was impressed. "Parker, that's almost nor—"

"And how to pick a Rabson lock in under forty-five seconds. Ninety for Cody."

"Why?"

She blinked at him. "He's still pretty young. I don't think his motor skills have—"

"That's not what I—"

"I'm Dougie's advocate." she said, as if it was the obvious answer. "For life."

"Yeah, I get that, but—"

"Eliot," she said patiently, "he needs to know that being different isn't so different." She titled her head. "All kids need to know that." She checked her watch, stood, and grabbed her jacket. "I'm meeting Hardison at Hannah's for cake. Want to come? She's experimenting with a new one—it has orange soda in it."

"Thanks, but I think I'll stick around. But tell Hannah I'll be in for lunch tomorrow, would you?"

She nodded, tapped the security keypad, and was out the door before it reset.

Ron was back in time to hear the beep. "Parker left?"

"Yeah. You gave her the code for the alarm?"

Ron gave him a look. "You think it would make a difference if we hadn't?"

Eliot rubbed his chin. "Guess not. You let her watch the kids by herself?"

"She'd lose an arm before letting something happen to those kids. Besides, she's teaching them manual dexterity, problem solving, a profitable trade . . . and we pay her in Cinnamon Toast Crunch. What's not to like?"

"Keeping Dougie from breaking into other people's apartments and jumping off buildings?"

"Welcome to parenting. Hey— remember how you asked me how a claustrophobe could live with an agoraphobe? You have to see this."

He followed Ron past Dougie's room, where Cody was snoring in his Spider Man sleeping bag next to the empty twin bed.

The other bedroom was nearly full of queen-sized bed, also empty. The closet door had been folded back, and sneakers and slippers and boots had been shoved to one side to make room for mother and son, who were fast asleep.

Dougie leaned against Jo's side, her arm holding him close, and she'd stuffed a sweatshirt between her head and the wall. Ron turned on a bedside lamp and Eliot saw that the shadow on her jaw was a new bruise and the knuckles of her free hand were scraped up. But the expression on her face was peaceful.

An electronic trill broke the mood. Ron took out his cell, shutting off the ring. "Damien," he muttered, and walked into the hall.

Jo stirred and opened her eyes. "Spencer?"

"Hey."

"Hey. How was the job?"

"Same old. How was yours?"

"Not same old. But we got 'em out."

"That's what counts."

"Mmm. I'm getting married."

"I know. About time."

"He tricked me." She smiled. "You gonna be our best man?"

"Who else?"

"Good. Didn't want you to give me away—you might decide to do it for keeps." She yawned again. "Sorry. See you tomorrow?" She closed her eyes.

"Yeah. Bright and early. I can see you've been slacking off since I've been gone."

She stuck out her tongue without bothering to open her eyes.

"Hey. Hey, Jo. Want me to put the kid to bed? You'll be hurting tomorrow if you stay like that."

She tightened her hold on Dougie. "No. We're good. Still kick your butt. 'Night." And she was out again.

He took the quilt off the bed and tucked it around both of them, substituted a pillow for Jo's sweatshirt, and went to turn off the lamp.

"Thanks, Eliot," mumbled Jo. "For everything."

He looked at them, the latest additions to his unlikely, makeshift family, and smiled.

"We're even," he said, and turned out the light.


DONE.

Thanks again—infinite thanks—to everyone who encouraged me with reviews and PMs and alerts and constructive criticism. You not only helped me continue writing, but you helped me see the difference between what I thought I was writing and what you knew you were reading—that's priceless, people, and I thank you again.

Thanks also to anyone who has kept reading to this point, either now or in the future! Thirty chapters is quite a time investment—I hope you think the story was worth it.

Any reviews on this chapter, or on this story as a whole, will always be gratefully accepted (and yes, that's a subtle hint).

VV