AN: sorry this took so long. this was a tough one to construct, hope it doesn't feel too disjointed to you. it's just little pieces of their evening to tie up some loose ends and prepare for the next chapter. the parts in italics near the end are their innner thoughts, hope it's not confusing. enjoy!
"Happy New Year!"
"Parker, it's only six o'clock," Eliot informs her. "You're a few hours early."
"I was talking to Sophie," she explains, raising her glass of champagne to the grifter, who is the last to join them in the living room. "She was born in England, so her year is already new."
"Thank you," Sophie replies, liking the idea and accepting the glass Hardison offers. "Happy New Year, London," she says, toasting with Parker.
"Are we going to do this every hour?" Eliot asks, afraid of the answer.
"Damn! Is it six already?" Hardison exclaims.
"What's wrong?" Parker asks.
"I forgot to wish Luxembourg a Happy New Year," he quips, earning a chuckle from Eliot and a scowl from his fiancé.
"Just for that, I'm not going to wish your time zone a Happy New Year," she decides.
"Good luck. I grew up in Chicago. We're in my time zone, baby!"
"At seven, we can wish Rekjavik a Happy New Year," Sophie points out.
"Nope, uh-uh! Nothing in Iceland is new or happy," Hardison says, shaking his head quickly. Talk of the only county in which he's a wanted man always puts him on edge.
"Maybe we should honeymoon there…" Parker muses with a grin.
"This is what one glass of champagne does to you guys?" Nate asks with concern. "Lightweights…"
The rest of the team exchanges exasperated looks but Parker is the first to act. Without a word, she turns to him and blows her party horn in his face. It unfurls right into his eye. "We should probably get going now," he decides, not waiting to see what the others might do. He puts down his glass and heads toward the door, unintentionally winking the whole way. As soon as his back is turned the laughter they were suppressing bursts forth, following him out the door.
The Dublin Street Women's Shelter stands alone on a large plot on the shore of Lake Minnetonka. Past the stone walls and steel gate, the drive follows the easy rise of the landscape and ends in a large oval shaped turn-around. Built in 1854, the neoclassical façade cuts an impressive shape against the horizon. It is perfectly symmetrical with grand columns and intricate wrought iron balconies. The off-white stone might have given it a look of cold austerity, but the light and warmth spilling from the windows balance it out.
When the team arrives they hardly recognize the place. Color has been splashed on the walls and the heavy curtains have been thrown open. Enormous arm chairs and overstuffed couches have replaced the beautiful, but uncomfortable, antique furniture. The wide hallway is lined with coolers brimming with soda and beer. Every surface in the kitchen is loaded with snacks and hors d'oeuvres. In addition to the familiar faces, old neighbors, new neighbors and the Excelsior Fire Department are mingling throughout the first floor while a three piece band sets up in the corner of the living room. Most of the furniture has been pushed toward the outsides of the room to create a makeshift dance floor.
Kasey comes bounding down the stairs and launches herself into Eliot's arms. She seems to have finally warmed up to him. He kindly places her back on her feet and moves up the stairs while she shows off her newly cast-free arm to the rest of the group. Nate slips away to pour himself a drink as Parker and Hardison teach the girl an elaborate handshake. Sophie smirks at Eliot's departure then jumps into a conversation with Sarah, complimenting her on the house's transformation.
"Nice office," Eliot comments, taking in the mahogany wood paneling and wingback chairs.
"I liked my old office," Jordan says glumly. "Is it just me or does this desk make me look like a twelve year old?" She's right. The desk is huge and Jordan, while fully grown, is a petite woman.
"You'll grow into it," he replies, moving further into the room.
"I hope so…" she muses, starting to organize the countless papers in front of her. "Because a booster seat would really mess up the tone of the room." Eliot laughs, noting that her smile is less forced and the weight that's been plaguing her since they met seems to have lifted. "I feel like I should take up cigar smoking and brandy swirling."
"Maybe you should take a break," he suggests. "You know, there's a party going on downstairs?"
"Yeah, I should get down there," she admits, pushing away from the massive desk. "I've only got-" she glances at her watch, "ooh, five hours to find somebody to kiss at midnight."
"I don't think you'll have any trouble." She grins and strides toward the door, but Eliot steps into her path. "Wait, I have something for you."
"What is it?"
"Call it a belated Christmas present," he says, reaching into his jacket, producing a four by eight manila envelope. Jordan gives him a suspicious look, but is too curious not to take it. She flips the tab open tentatively and peers inside. Not believing her eyes, she sinks into the nearest chair.
"But,…how?" is all she can manage. With incredible care, she takes the bundle of photos out and starts to sift through them. She stops on one of a woman in her thirties and a little girl around six smiling from the lakeshore.
"There was some water damage, but we restored what we could."
"It's everything." Jordan blinks back tears as she stares at the images she thought we lost in the fire. "I can't thank you enough."
"Meet me at midnight. We'll call it even."
"It's eight o'clock, whose new year is it now?" Hardison asks. Parker tries to muster a glare but it doesn't hold.
"It's not that crazy," she reasons. "Birthdays are specific to when you're born. Why can't new year's be specific to where you're born?"
"It's not crazy," he agrees. "Let's see what we've got here…" Hardison pulls out his smart phone and taps the screen a few times. "Bingo. Happy New Year, Cape Verde!"
"I love Cape Verde!" Sophie bursts in. "I hid out there for three weeks after Nate almost caught me in Marseilles." She throws an arm across Parker's shoulders and clinks glasses with both of them. "Happy New Year, Cape Verde!" A few people standing close by repeat the sentiment in slight confusion and Sophie resumes her circuit of the room.
"So, what time zone do you belong to?" Hardison asks without thinking. He assumed it was a harmless question, but feeling Parker's posture shift, he realizes his mistake. Her head drops down and she pulls her arms around her body.
"I don't know," she says quietly with a shrug. Parker glances around, suddenly feeling very exposed. Hardison knows that look: she wants to run. She wants to make a dash for the door, but she's fighting it. He touches her shoulder and nods toward a hallway beyond the kitchen. She takes his hand and allows him to guide them through the sea of people.
As a part of the reconnaissance for this job, Hardison found the blueprints for this house to figure out where to plant the bugs and cameras. Now, he recalls the layout, leading them past the bathroom and the short line forming outside of it. Past the enormous pantry and the stairs to the wine cellar. Past the rooms that used to be designated to the live-in staff. Down four steps, where the hard wood floors are replaced by stone tiles, to a pair of glass double doors.
A conservatory. The last time Hardison saw a room like this he was playing Clue. Moonlight pours in from the slanted glass ceiling, and with the doors closed behind them the party seems a world away. Hydrangeas and geraniums are easy to identify, and the lemon tree in the corner can't be missed, but the rest of the room is an expanse of unknown flowers. Parker moves around the room, not in curiosity or admiration, but out of the need for action.
"There were so many things," she says suddenly. "I didn't know…" Hardison isn't sure what she's talking about, but decides that it's better to let her ramble. She'll make sense eventually. "I should have paid more attention. All those details, the names and places and dates…I didn't know it was important."
Now standing in front of a glass wall, Parker wipes away the fog with her palm. In the daylight, this would have revealed a dazzling view of the lake but in the dark all she can see is her own reflection. "We moved around a lot. We would go wherever my dad could find job. It would be good for a while, but it never lasted and then we'd move again." Hardison holds his breath, not wanting to break her concentration.
"It was in Springfield, Illinois that my brother died, and we were somewhere in Ohio when I ran away…" She shakes off the images that come with this statement and pushes onward. "Every time I got caught, the social worker would ask me questions. Where are you from? Where are your parents? What are their names? I would always say that I couldn't remember. So, they would just throw me into a foster home." The glass has already steamed over again by the time Parker turns back to her fiancé.
"I kept saying that I couldn't remember, but after a while…I really couldn't. I wanted to forget…and I did."
"You were just a kid. You did what you had to."
"I didn't know it was important," she says again. Hardison closes the space between them and wraps his arms around her.
"Just because you can't remember your past," he says into her hair, "It doesn't mean you don't have a future." He releases her and holds up her left hand as a reminder. She finally smiles and her body relaxes. "There she is. The future Mrs. Alec Hardison."
"I'm not taking your last name, you know."
"What?" She grins at his dismay and grabs his hand, leading him back to the party. "Come on, it's a good name. Hardison. Strong, reliable, can't ask for a better name…" he trails off, knowing that this is a losing battle.
"Almost midnight…Thinking about your resolutions?" Sophie asks. Nate closes the watch and slips it back into his pocket. He continues to gaze out the window of Jordan's office, wondering how long she was here before speaking.
"I've got a little time yet. I'm sure I'll think of something."
"I've got some ideas, if you're stuck," she says, nodding to the drink in his hand.
"Go enjoy the party. I have it under control."
"What? Your resolutions or the drinking?"
"Both," Nate replies lightly.
"I'll leave it for now…but I'm not going back to the party without you." He tries to protest but she is already dragging him toward the door. "Come on. Eliot is trying to teach Hardison and Parker how to two-step. You don't want to miss this."
Sure enough, when they make it back to the main room, the band is playing an old country song and Parker and Kasey are giggling uncontrollably while Eliot attempts to give the hacker a dance lesson.
"If you step on my foot one more time-"
"Hold on, am I the boy or the girl?"
"Damn it, Hardison!"
At some point Eliot is convinced to jump in with the band and belts out a classic Hank Williams Sr. song, dedicating it to his newly engaged friends.
"Well sugar, I took one look at you and it almost drove me mad," he sings, his voice twanging more with each verse. "Then I even went and lost what little sense I had." His perfect tone dissolves into laughter as Hardison stubbles with the simple two-step. "Now, I can't tell the day from night. I'm crazy as a loon. You got me chasing rabbits, pulling out my hair and howling at the moon." The rest of the band erupts into howls with the close of the verse, eliciting cheers from the crowded room.
"Before I sing this last verse," Eliot says, while the drummer continues the steady beat. "I want everyone to raise a glass the Parker and Hardison. He asked her to marry him last week -and she said yes!"
"Don't act so surprised!" Hardison protests over the crowd's applause.
"Well, I never thought in this ole world a fool could fall so hard. But, honey baby, when I fell the whole world must have jarred. I think I'd quit my doggish ways if you'd take me for your groom. You got me chasing rabbits, picking out rings and howling at the moon." This time the whole room starts to howl.
The band takes another break around 11:30, turning the music over to a mix of old standards. Sophie is explaining to Parker why people kiss at the stroke of midnight. Hardison is having a slightly hushed conversation with Nate, discussing the possibility of taking Parker on a road trip to Springfield the next time they have a few days off. And, Eliot is in a dark corner with Jordan.
"What's so funny?" he asks, a little confused. The champagne seems to have gone to her head.
"I was just thinking about your business cards," she giggles. "Not that you're in the type of business that has business cards…but man, they would have to be huge."
"And, why is that?"
"All those things….This is what we do," she imitates his deep voice, but can't keep a straight face for more than a moment. "You fix windows, you change locks, you…trap millionaires in revolving doors," she says, laughing again. "You save Christmas."
"That was a first."
"Better update your résumé. I think that's going to be a big selling point for you guys."
"Well, if we ever need some PR, I know who to call," Eliot replies, flashing the kind of smile he saves for when the job is done.
"I'll be here. Just digging to China, as always," Jordan mumbles with a grin.
"China?" Of all the women Eliot has crossed paths with, she is the hardest to keep up with. Especially after a few glasses of champagne.
"That's what I do," she explains. "I'm always digging to China. It's the never-ending job. No matter how many women I help, I'll never save all of them. I'll never get to China." A wry smile moves to her lips as she takes another sip of champagne. "Neither will you."
"Come on, no digging tonight," Eliot says, taking her glass and setting it aside. He offers his hand like a true gentleman and pulls her to a clear space on the floor. Ella Fitzgerald is crooning "Isn't It Romantic" as he twirls her once then brings her close. Two other couples follow suit after a few beats and before long Parker is dragging Hardison to the center of the room too. Even Nate and Sophie have joined in by the time the song is over. When it fades into a familiar big band song from over half a century ago the swaying couples start to bounce and jive to the beat.
The entire house has joined in the countdown. They have become a unified mass staring at the ornate pendulum clock in anticipation. Time seems to slow down as the year comes to a close.
"Five…Four…Three…Two…ONE…Happy New Year!"
Noise makers live up to their name and pops of confetti erupt into the air. The new year is welcomed with many kisses of varying levels of intensity and an electric guitar rendition of "Auld Lang Syne." Parker jumps into Hardison's arms and for once he is totally prepared, able to fully enjoy the first kiss of 2011 to his future wife. Eliot takes his time with Jordan knowing that this is likely their last kiss.
That leaves Nate and Sophie. Sure, she could have positioned herself next to one those single firefighters but, what fun would that be? He awkwardly glances around, wondering if she plans on kissing someone else and who might witness them if she doesn't. Fully amused, Sophie plants one on Nate, making sure to smear as much of her crimson lipstick on him as possible and hoping that he doesn't pass a mirror anytime soon.
Eliot accepts the brotherly hug from Hardison, but draws the line when the hacker tries to kiss him. He playfully shoves his friend out of the way to give Parker a kiss on the cheek. When he moves down the line to Sophie, the blonde steps back a bit to observe the scene. Not just her circle, but the whole room, the whole house. All of these people, some strangers, some friends. All smiling and laughing and dancing. Tears are welling in her eyes before she can understand why.
Up until now Parker hasn't paid much attention to time, but tonight everyone is here celebrating its passage. It seems so foreign to her that there is one midnight out of the whole year that is special and marks the end and the beginning in the same moment. Looking around this big house and the happy people filling it, she decides that this is the best beginning she has ever seen.
We did this, she marvels. We put this roof over their heads and the smiles on their faces. She glances down at the ring on her finger, finally getting used to its weight. This is my life. It isn't a job or a way to pass the time. This is my life now. I'm not part of the scenery or holding someone's place. It's mine. And, I didn't even have to steal it. That's why there are tears in her eyes. It's that overwhelming sense of warmth and contentedness.
A hand at the small of her back pulls her out of her thoughts and she throws an arm across Hardison's shoulders. He doesn't say anything, he doesn't have to. He just joins her in soaking up the moment.
"I think it's going to be a really good year," she announces after awhile.
"I don't know. Last year is pretty tough to beat…" he muses. He went from almost losing her to proposing in less than twelve months. There were those first shaky weeks when he thought she might bolt at any sudden movement, but now here they are. Engaged and inseparable. Ready and willing.
"It was the best year I've ever had," Parker says with a painful honesty.
"Me too," he says, pulling her a fraction close. "So, let's top it."
After the chaos of midnight subsides the party starts to thin out. The band packs up their equipment and one by one people start saying their goodbyes. Most of them are short and inconsequential considering half of the guests live within walking distance. For the Leverage Team it takes much longer. Their goodbyes are heavy with inexpressible gratitude and the knowledge that they are not likely to meet again. Kasey defies her bedtime to give each them a hug, but is yawning before they even make it to the door.
Back at Eliot's cabin, they migrate to their beds almost immediately. With a midday flight tomorrow, there isn't time for much else. Even though their eyes are heavy, and the vacation they were promised was no vacation at all, their wandering thoughts keep them up long after the lights have been turned out.
Sophie wonders how long it's been since she told a man her real name, since she even said it out loud. Would it feel foreign to her lips? Would she need to practice saying it, like with a new alias, before it could sound natural? She hopes it wasn't a mistake to finally tell Nate. It wasn't because of their flirtations or the confusing gray areas in their relationship. She told him because they are equals. She's never had one of those before, at least not as an ally.
In the weeks to come Nate will be thinking about Sophie. His mind will be consumed by their midnight kiss and her reasons for revealing her name. But, not tonight. Right now, he's thinking about Christmas. This is the first year that he's acknowledged the holiday, (unless you count getting extra drunk, which most people don't) since his son died. It doesn't matter how many years he'd ignored it, one chorus of "Rudolf, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" and it all came rushing back. Now, staring at the ceiling, he lets the memories wash over him. There is a familiar knotting in his chest but for the first time it doesn't suffocate him. As always, tears fill his eyes, but this time the memories bring a smile with them too.
Eliot isn't thinking about Jordan. He's thinking about something she said. Digging to China, he reflects, She doesn't know how right she is. She was referring to the work that they do, but for Eliot it's different. It's not about the ever growing pool of people that have been wronged or the scumbags who think they are above the law. For him it's about atonement. Every person he helps is a small piece of redemption. He knows that his good deeds can't erase the dark ones of his past but it is the force that drives him. He'll always be earning his forgiveness, always digging.
Parker has never given much thought to science fiction or alternate realities. Even though Hardison had explained it to her many times, she's always shrugged it off as impossible. Until now. She's thinking about Kasey, how she was so bright and happy tonight. Only a week ago she was scared and angry, pulling away and hardening herself. She was turning to into Parker, but then the team swept in and saved the day. Now, Kasey has a new home and not a care in the world.
Parker can't help but wonder what would have happened if someone had done the same for Rebecca Lewis. Is there some other universe where I still have a brother? And a mother and father? Would I be happier? Would I still have turned out so odd? She burrows deeper into the pillows, telling herself to let it go. Rebecca Lewis doesn't exist anymore. It's too late to save her now.
Hardison can tell she's still awake. It's too dark for him to see the crease in her brow, but he can feel the tension in her body. He won't ask her what's wrong. He knows that she likes to work things out in her own time. When she wants to talk about it she will. She always comes to him eventually.
In the meantime, he has other things on his mind. She doesn't even know where she was born. It's been bothering him all night. I can fix that. It would be so easy for him. A few minutes on his computer and they would know. Birth date, place, time. He could find the name and address of the doctor who delivered her if he really wanted to. But, is that what she wants? She was upset by all the things she'd forgotten but Parker has to know that he could find out for her. If she wanted him to do a background check, she would have asked. It was the reassurance of her future that turned her mood around. Maybe she wants to leave the past behind. He had talked to Nate about taking a trip to her brother's gravesite, but now he isn't sure it's such a good plan. Some wounds shouldn't be reopened. Would it help her move forward or just cause her unnecessary pain? He goes back and forth for quite some time, unsure whether to even suggest the idea to Parker.
At some point, another thought occurs to him. If he did look for information about her birth, her parents would certainly come up. No way to stop his computer from linking that data to his search. What if they are still alive? What if they are still wondering what happened to their little girl? Would Parker want to know any of this?
Hardison will be the last to finally drift to sleep.