Summary: The moment Eliot realized that he'd somehow adopted a new family without knowing it. "Next to the Stupid Lion" verse, but can be read as a standalone.

This story is in the verse I started with my Leverage / Secondhand Lions crossover story "Next to the Stupid Lion," but it can be read as a standalone, since it has hardly any Secondhand Lions in it anyway (except for Walter, who grew up to be Eliot's dad, in case you haven't read the other story - that's all you have to know, and two tiny allusions to Hub McCann's "how to be a man" speech [#1 is the title, and #2 is kind of near the end, if you want to search for it]). That's why I'm posting this in the general Leverage section instead of with the other story. This isn't the promised prequel but I thought of it and simply had to write it because the original premise made me giggle.

Things Worth Believing In

It hit him by surprise the first time he realized it.

He was sitting on the couch at Nate's, watching a game on the six-screen TV. Parker was curled up beside him, fast asleep. None of them had ever seen her let down her guard enough to actually sleep in their presence until their second year together as a team. Hardison had never had any qualms about falling asleep wherever and whenever he felt like it, even from their first month together as an official team (his late nights and orange soda addiction dictated an unusual sleep schedule), Nate regularly retreated to his room when it got late, whether he had unwanted house guests or not, and Sophie indulged in the occasional ladylike doze on the sofa, but it had taken years for Parker and Eliot to feel comfortable enough with the others to be able to relax and sleep with them around.

Parker snuffled in her sleep, and snuggled in closer to the warmth given off by Eliot's body. His arm was around her (how, why, and when?), and she had her pert little nose firmly tucked into his armpit.

Eliot glanced down at the movement, and froze. His younger siblings had both had a habit of falling asleep in that position when they were growing up - his much-younger sister Jasmine still did on the rare occasions when he went home to visit. Always with his arm around them, their noses stuck deep in his armpit. Always, no matter where they were - on the couch, on the porch, sharing a bed, in the car - if they fell asleep, they'd always end up with their faces wedged under his arm.

He'd always wondered what the hell was so appealing about that particular part of his anatomy, that younger siblings never failed to park their noses there, but he'd never gotten a satisfactory answer. He'd tried sniffing himself, but didn't find anything particularly appealing about the smell he found there, especially after a hot day or a good long workout. It had only been Garth and Jasmine that ever ended up there. None of his girlfriends had had an armpit kink, though he was always willing to try anything.

Well, Garth, Jasmine, and now Parker, it seemed. He wondered when he'd adopted her as another younger sister. It was a disturbing thought, that she'd somehow infiltrated his barriers against unnecessary attachments and stolen his heart without him even realizing it.

She snorted, shifted, and threw a long leg over his lap. Her other knee was bent and on the verge of digging into his stomach, but he didn't move, just let her sleep and breathe deeply into his armpit.

He caught Hardison's laughing eye over the younger man's laptop and glared. What else was he supposed to do? Moving her might result in a spork in his throat or something.

Hardison grinned at the two of them, and snapped a photo of the impromptu cuddling with his phone. Eliot scowled at him, and by default, at the camera. "I'm gonna kill you," he mouthed over the little thief's blond head.

Hardison just laughed. He knew Eliot wouldn't hurt him. They were like brothers.

And that was yet another thought that had come into his mind unbidden. When the hell had Hardison hacked through Eliot's emotional firewalls?

Sure, he was geeky enough to put his real little brother to shame, and the three of them bickered enough, but otherwise, what in the world did Hardison and Parker do in order to make Eliot take over as big brother?

That started him on another train of thought, and he glanced over to where Nate and Sophie were sitting at the table, just sitting in a comfortable, companionable silence, with their respective mugs of coffee and tea. If the hacker and the thief were like his younger brother and sister, then logically, that would make Nate like a father and Sophie like a mother to the whole lot of them.

It was an interesting comparison to examine - Nate was a lot like his real father, yet then again, not at all. They were both intelligent, quiet, bookish types, given to brooding, but Nate saw all that was evil and bad about the world and tried to get back at it, while Dad…Dad saw the good in it, believed in the inherent goodness of people, not because he was naïve or was a pushover, but because he considered honor and virtue things worth believing in. He saw the good in even his temerarious oldest son and loved him for it. Dad had raised him to help people, taught him to aid those who couldn't help themselves, while still saving their dignity. Maybe Eliot had forgotten that along the way, but Nate had led him back onto the path. And for that, he was grateful.

But what of Sophie? She was the mother of their oddball little family, gave them soft words and caresses when they needed it, gave them somewhere to run away to when the world seemed dark and forbidding. And she forgave. That's what a mother does.

She was seemingly the complete opposite of his own mother, all dark, smoldering eyes and thick black hair, where Mama had been blond and blue-eyed. And Mama had loved to sing; she had always been singing or humming a tune while she did the laundry or tended the garden. Her voice was one of the first things he remembered. Sophie couldn't carry a single note (he shuddered as the repressed memory of her Sound of Music performance resurfaced) to save her life, unless it was for a con (probably, although he had some doubts about it, considering her horrendous butchering of "My Favorite Things," which made him want to gouge his ears out with a very sharp knife). But Mama had felt like home, like comfort and flowers, and Sophie felt a lot like that.

They all felt like that, like home. And then he realized, this was home. Sure, he loved his family, his bratty little sister and his annoying little brother, and his daddy, and his mama, God rest her soul. But he'd always had the niggling sense somewhere in the back of his mind that he didn't belong. That was why he'd set out as a bright-eyed barely-eighteen-year-old with violent tendencies (his high school counselor had shaken his head and advised him to sign up for both football and wrestling to get the pent-up aggression out of his system) to see just how far he could get on only his strength and wits, and he'd ended up as Moreau's right hand man at the ripe old age of twenty-six.

He'd been at the top of his game then, but he hadn't been happy, far from content, in fact. He'd had the power, the money, but it hadn't been worth the price of his soul. So he'd cut loose, started over again, and tried for redemption. He'd found it a few years later in the unlikely form of this team. And now, he was happy, and maybe, just maybe, he was content.

Parker shifted again, now almost completely in his lap, and her knee definitely hitting something vital. She yawned right in his face and stretched like a cat. "Eliot, I'm hungry. Make me something."

He scowled at the unrepentant thief and got up, dumping her on the soft carpet as he did so, eliciting a startled yelp. Hardison snickered, Sophie frowned disapprovingly, and Nate shook his head as he sipped at his coffee.

Yeah, he was as close to perfectly content as he could ever hope to be, Eliot thought, as he pulled the ingredients for Parker's favorite peanut butter, jelly, and cheese crepes out of the refrigerator.'d I do this time? Is my Eliot in character? I'm working on it!