I hate it when the job involves kids; they don't deserve this kind of crap. Plus, it always ends up being a tough job and it does a number on Nate. I really hate these types of jobs.
Eliot's thoughts wandered as he watched the kids run back to their parents. It had been one of those times when he really wanted to just snap the bad guy's neck. Nate had talked him out of it, pointing out the troubles the man would have in prison when word got out. A small, almost imperceptible sniff drew his attention around to Parker.
The blonde thief had her eyes focused on the smallest of the boys who was clinging to his dad. The corner of Eliot's mouth twitched; the boy had been a handful on the way home. He wanted to know how to pick Parker's padlock, whether Sophie's diamond necklace was real, and if Hardison's laptop could play Bugs Bunny. Eliot shook his head.
Forget Bugs Bunny; the kid acts like the Energizer bunny.
As he looked back at Parker, Eliot realized her eyes had a glassy sheen to them. He frowned. He had not seen her this upset since that idiot ghost whisperer wannabe reminded her of her brother. A quick glance towards Hardison found the hacker's attention completely centered on his computer. Rolling his shoulders, Eliot shifted over to stand next to her. She peeked at him from the corner of her eye.
He gave her a slight smile and put a hand on her arm. He did not say anything.
She bit her lip. In a whisper-soft voice she began speaking. "He reminds me of my brother. Nick had that same kind of energy. He always wanted to know things."
Eliot moved his hand up to her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. She leaned into him for just a moment before pulling herself up and away. As her chin came up, he could see her mask drop down. With a sigh, he let go.
"You know where to find me."
She gave him one of her real smiles before it dropped away and she moved to stand next to Hardison. The hacker continued his furious typing with barely a pause, and Eliot shook his head. He stepped up to Nate and Sophie.
She smiled at him. "Is Parker alright? She seemed…upset about something."
"Yeah," he replied. "She should be good."
Nate raised a silent eyebrow and Eliot gave a slight shrug. "Nick."
"Ah," acknowledged the mastermind, an understanding look filling his eyes as he glanced over to their thief. Dropping the subject, he turned to Sophie. "The parents?"
"The money has been deposited from an 'anonymous' donor, and Hardison is finishing up the electronic trail now."
"Good," Nate replied, a small, sad smile gracing his lips. "They need a break. As soon as Hardison finishes…"
"And done!" Hardison exclaimed, interrupting their leader. He looked around with a large grin. "Everything's in place; sometime tomorrow the 'paperwork error' will pop up and they get their house back."
"So, we ready?" Eliot asked.
At the hitter's question, Nate nodded. "Let's go."
The team climbed into the van. Each of them spared a final look and smile for the reunited family before they drove away. If some of those looks held longing or regrets, no one remarked on it. Eliot filtered out most of Hardison and Sophie's chatter on the drive home. He kept a careful eye on the two members who had suffered the most during this job.
Nate's eyes had grown dark once more over the past several days as they rushed to rescue the kids. No one mentioned Sam, but Nate's avoidance of even a drop of whiskey spoke volumes about how close he walked to the edge. Generally Nate had no problem with a drink or two on the job, but when his memories of Sam got stirred, the drinking drifted from simple to desperate. The children needed him sober, so he stayed sober.
Eliot did not wager on that happening once they got home.
Much like Nate, Parker tended to focus on the job and then cut loose afterwards. If they did not have another job lined up pretty quickly, she would disappear on them. She would either hole up somewhere to lick her wounds in private or go on a break-in spree. Last time she had slipped the leash on what limited amounts of self-control she possessed, she brought them all presents from the British Museum.
Eliot still could not figure out what to do about that Ancient Egyptian book she decided to bring him.
He shook his head and stared out the window. He had to get some rest if he was going to keep an eye on them when they got back to Boston. Sophie would leave as soon as it became obvious that Nate intended to keep drinking. Hardison would basically disappear into cyberspace to catch up with his various geeky interests. Who knew which reaction Parker would have?
Have to make sure Nate gets safely up to bed. Sophie'll come by in the morning with coffee, and Hardison's there all night on the computer anyway. All I've got to do is get him upstairs.
With that decision firmed up in his head, he turned to glance at Parker. Her bright eyes stayed focused on the road in front of them. He frowned, narrowing his eyes. Her right hand twitched.
Damn; she's going to go on a spree. How the hell do I track her after I get Nate squared away?
He could almost, almost, curse the day he had signed on with this crew. Before they came along, he had managed to lock every tender feeling and impulse behind bars of steel and walls of stone. He did his job, collected his pay, and moved on. Nothing touched him because nothing mattered. The only things he ever wondered about centered pretty much exclusively on when, where, and how he would be just a shade too slow, everything would be over, and he could rest.
Things had changed dramatically since meeting these people. Hardison managed to impress him, however reluctantly, with his technological genius. Sophie reminded him of the gentler ways that a job could be done, using grace and charm instead of force and pain. Nate, at least when sober, had earned his trust; despite everything, Nate Ford wanted to do what was right, and he wanted to rehabilitate this motley crew, not imprison them.
And Parker; what about Parker? No one could frustrate him as fast as the blonde thief did without planning it. And yet…she could get a laugh out of him quicker than anybody else. If he did not keep a close eye out, she would steal his bread knife – woman had to have five of them now. No matter who stood closest to danger, he always checked on her first if a job went south. She confused, delighted, flustered, and annoyed him – usually all at the same time. A snatch of a half remembered lyric popped into his mind.
I don't have a choice, but I still choose you.
He had buried what made him human in the deepest recess of his psyche and padlocked the door. How the hell was he supposed to know he would one day run with a crowd that included the world's best thief?
Alec Hardison may have been an easily distracted, geeky technophile, but his Nana had not raised any fool. When something smelled bad, you threw it out. She had taught him to apply that particular piece of logic to all kinds of circumstances…including relationships. In his Nana's mind, relationships were a part of life; some worth keeping, some worth remembering; others just helped you grow. Sometimes you grew into a relationship; sometimes you grew out of it. When you grew out of it, everything needed to change. You either made a new relationship or you gave it up altogether. Doing anything else? Now that was both foolhardy and stupid.
His Nana could not abide either one.
So, when things started changing between Parker and him, he noticed. He watched as Parker tried to be his girlfriend, tried to stay in one place even when her instincts demanded she move. It hurt, the knowledge that he was causing her to change, but he was not sure how to fix it. How did he tell her that she should not change who she was…that he loved her anyway?
The thought stung. He loved her, he really did; just not enough…at least, not in the right way. He wanted a girlfriend. He wanted someone to be there for him. He wanted to be there for her. He wanted them to share at least some of the same hobbies and interests, while both fitting into the rather unique family to which he belonged. He wanted to spend some time together as a normal couple, going to dinner and the movies without having to watch her case the place or worry about what she said or did.
And that's not Parker.
He winced as the thought crossed his mind. The thief had caught his attention with her quirky behavior and free-spirited ways, but their interests outside of the job did not actually mesh all that well. Parker tried so hard to be what he wanted, but it changed her into…well, into not-Parker. Parker couldn't be what he wanted; he couldn't be who she needed.
She needed someone who accepted her without expectations. She needed someone who could work around her quirks and foibles; someone who would make do. She needed someone who could follow her when she decided to run off. She needed someone who would listen as she waxed eloquent over this museum's collection and denigrated that one's security system. Most of all, she needed someone that would be her center, allowing her to shoot off into any given direction but always be there for her to come home.
And that's not me.
He could not keep up with all of her museums, banks, or getaways. She did not understand his science fiction fandoms. He would get lost in his work and not notice when she needed a steady presence. She would pull one of her vanishing acts when he needed some couple time. Their schedules never matched; they kept coming so close but missing the critical link. They had a wonderful friendship, but the crush had not grown with it. They had grown out of their relationship.
Moving back instead of forward seems to me absurd.
As the line from a favorite song passed through his mind, he realized that he would have to be the one to end things. Parker had never really had a normal relationship. She did not get the chance to go through the usual minor crushes and heartbreaks like every other girl. She would not realize they had changed, changed so much in so little time.
He did not want to do this. He hated giving people bad news, hated hurting them.
He walked into the kitchen and grabbed himself some orange soda. Standing at the countertop, he stared into the living area. He watched as Nate began knocking back shot after shot of whiskey. He had known the last case hit home for their leader, but he did not realize it was going to be quite this bad. Sophie gathered her jacket, preparing to leave. Eliot stood leaning against the far wall, his arms folded across his chest and his head down. The hitter might have been dozing except for the intense stare focused on Nate. Hardison shifted his eyes to Parker.
The blonde thief shifted each time Nate took a drink. Her hands twitched slightly as she glanced around the room, and Hardison rolled his shoulders as her eyes moved from the windows to Nate to the door. She kept cycling between the three spots. Her shoulders hunched and gave a twitch.
He put down his glass.
Just as he began to adjust his weight to move, Eliot reached out and brushed a lock of hair out of her face. Parker turned towards the hitter. Hardison watched as their eyes met. He frowned as they shared an entire conversation in that one look. Parker sighed and settled back on the chair.
Hardison contemplated the two of them for several minutes while his brain started piecing together various scenes and instances he had not previously connected. They bubbled to the surface of his mind. His eyes narrowed.
They had finished the preliminary plan. They would leave for Newark in the morning to find the children.
"So, lasagna?" Eliot asked as he stood up and headed for the kitchen.
"Cereal." Parker followed him.
Eliot shook his head. "You had cereal for breakfast and lunch."
"I like cereal." The blonde thief protested as she hopped up on the countertop.
He rolled his eyes. "I know. You can have more tomorrow."
She shrugged and watched him start making everyone a homemade meal. He gave her a small nudge and frowned for a moment when she refused to move. With a sigh he pointed behind her.
"I need the knife."
She twisted around and pulled it out. She smiled as she gave it to him. "You have a new bread knife."
He pointed at her. "Yeah, and you leave it here. You've already got four of them stashed somewhere. You don't need a fifth."
She just smiled. He grumbled and went on fixing dinner, working around her when necessary.
Hardison stared at the pair. Someone who accepted her…worked around her…who let her be all the wonderful, strange and crazy things that made her Parker…who else but Eliot? Hardison had to wonder. Could he do it? Could he go around day-by-day and see them together? If not Eliot, then who else? That was the main issue. Hardison knew he was not who she needed, but would he trust anyone outside the team with her?
He would accept it. Hell, he would even encourage it – because he loved her. Eliot would move Heaven and earth to take care of her. He would stand before the gates of Hell to protect her. Above all else, Eliot took Parker for what she was…with exasperation at times, with amusement at others, but always with acceptance. He steadied her in a way no one else could.
Hardison sighed. He had to talk to Parker.
Tomorrow. I'll talk to her tomorrow. We've got to get Nate past tonight first.
Parker stared at him with confusion etching across her face. "I don't understand."
"Parker…" Hardison started.
"What happened? Did I do something wrong?" The blonde focused her eyes on him. Distress rolled off her. "I tried…I don't…It's me, right?"
"No, Parker," he said. His hands reached for her arms but she jerked away. "It's not your fault. It's nobody's fault. We just don't fit right."
"What do you mean? I don't know what that means." Her voice quavered.
He heard the lost little girl hidden behind the woman and almost stopped. He nearly gave up in order to comfort her, but he took a deep breath and held on to his resolve. "Parker, sometimes people change, they grow apart from each other. We're friends, good friends; we thought we were more, but it's just not the right thing for us."
"What did I do?" she demanded, her voice rising.
"You didn't do anything," he answered. Frustration furrowed his brow. She stepped back from him and sorrow darkened his eyes once more. "That's just it Parker. We've changed. We're not the same as we were a couple of years ago. Outside of work, we don't have a lot in common; we don't have things we share or do together." He blew out a sharp breath. "We make good friends, great even. We just don't make a good couple anymore."
Tears shimmered in her eyes for a moment before a cold mask settled over her features.
He reached out. "Parker…"
"No," she interrupted, voice rough with suppressed emotion. "You don't…you can't…" She stopped, visibly trying to pull herself back under control. He was watching her carefully, but between one breath and the next she dove for the nearest window and slid out it.
She heard him calling after her, voice thick with concern. Instead of going down as might be expected, she scaled the wall to sit on the window sill above. Perched there, tears running in silent rivulets down her cheeks, she watched Hardison stick his head out the window and look down. He swung his gaze from left to right on the street trying to spot her. As he pulled his head back in the window, she could hear Eliot talking to him.
"What are you doing?" Eliot asked humor evident in his tone of voice.
"Looking for Parker," Hardison replied.
She heard Eliot give a soft snort. "Out the window?"
"Yeah, man, well," the hacker mumbled. "She was upset."
No sound came from the window below for several long moments. Then she heard Eliot once more, but now the tone took on a darker feel. It was Eliot's 'don't make me come over there and kick your ass' voice. "What did you do?"
She wiped some tears away as she waited to hear the response.
Hardison took a deep breath and muttered. "Heart for a bullet."
"What?" Eliot asked.
"Never mind," Hardison replied. "I broke up with her."
"Why?" came the incredulous question from their hitter.
The sound of a throat being cleared reached her ears. "We don't fit right anymore."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Hey, man, what the hell do you think it means? Do you think I want to hurt her? We've been drifting, falling apart for a while now, and I figured I better do something about it. Parker wouldn't know we were having problems…she's never really done a relationship before." Hardison's voice had become defensive.
Eliot scoffed. "Having problems does not mean you just dump her! Did you even try to work on the problems? Or did you just go straight to the 'moving on' part of the talk?"
"Don't you get it?" The hacker's voice rose and fell in volume. He seemed to be pacing the kitchen. She tilted her head to try and hear better. "We've gotten too different. I'm not what she needs."
"And that was the only reason?" Eliot's sarcastic tone soothed her, giving her the sense that someone was totally on her side.
"I've gone over it again and again. Hell, man, I made lists! I need someone who fits with me, who likes what I like, does what I do. Parker needs someone to be her rock, to give her stability…someone who takes her exactly like she is and doesn't want her to change."
A long drawn out sigh drifted out the window. Eliot spoke in a soft, deadly voice. "I'm going to find Parker. You are going to wait for Sophie to get here and tell her about all of this." Hardison tried to interrupt but Eliot steamrolled right over him. "I don't care whether you want to tell her or not. Let her make the coffee and then you tell her. She's going to have to help with Parker, and I'm not explaining your idiocy."
"Look…" Hardison started.
"No," Eliot interrupted. "I'm pissed at you, and if I thought it'd do any good you'd be down for the next few days. I don't have time for you right now."
A door slammed and she heard Hardison toss something across the kitchen. He looked out the window one more time before muttering to himself as he turned away. "Oh, that went well."
She waited until he moved out of the kitchen before she made her way down the side of the building and began walking. She hugged her arms tight around her cold frame.
Why? Why do I screw up everything I touch?
Her tears started falling once more. Tucking her head down, chin resting on her chest, she struggled to walk to the nearby park. Once there she fell, more than sat, into one of the swings. Making scuff marks in the sand with the toe of her shoe, she rocked forward and back on the swing ever so slightly.
I just wish I knew what I did wrong?
As she sat, she thought about everything Hardison had said. She knew she had difficulties picking up social cues. It had never been important to her. While the scene played out in her head again and again, she wondered about her reactions.
Am I upset about the break up? Or is it because Hardison broke up with me?
Sophie had told her once about being in love and how it differed from being in love with the idea of love. The grifter had told her love meant taking the good with the bad, learning how to balance both sides. Parker knew Sophie loved Nate. Despite Nate's drinking and occasional bouts of depression, Sophie kept coming back to him, kept trying to help him.
Did she love Hardison? Was she in love with love? Or just wanting something normal?
Nate told her one time that love would let you walk through any danger; it would let you trust beyond any limit. If that was love…to trust without question…did she love Hardison? Was she in love with Hardison?
Or did I just want to be?
Eliot took a deep breath as he spotted the blond hair and slumped shoulders. It had taken him a couple of hours to find her. There was a flash of anger in his eyes before he managed to push his irritation aside. He did not need to take it out on her. He walked over and crouched down in front of her, resting his arms on his thighs. He waited for her to look at him. As her red-rimmed eyes focused on him, he gave her a small smile.
"Hey, Crazy Girl, what are you doing out here?" he asked, keeping his voice low and his eyes soft.
"Hardison told you," she replied, sorrow etched on her face. He just raised an eyebrow and she shrugged. "I went up."
He nodded, needing no explanation to understand her words. "Sat on the windowsill above the kitchen to listen?"
"You want me to break his fingers?"
She gave a small sniff, but one corner of her mouth lifted. "No, not today." He nodded.
Silence returned to the park for a few minutes. Eliot did not move. He stayed in his crouch, waiting for her to make the first move. She tilted her head as she stared at him. His lips twitched and she frowned in question.
He reached out and brushed her hair out of her face. "You reminded me of a kitten just now, all big eyes and curiosity."
One corner of her mouth pulled up. "I like cats."
"Of course you do, Miss Cat Burglar," he teased lightly. "You're a lot like them, sneaky, quiet, and you always land on your feet."
"Not always," she said, shaking her head.
He shrugged and ran one finger over her cheekbone and down her jawline to tap her chin. "Then I'll be there to catch you."
Her eyes focused on him for long moment before she stood up and began walking towards the picnic tables. As she passed him he rose and followed her. They sat in silence. A breeze came up, catching her fine hair, a few tendrils dancing in the air. She drew invisible, abstract patterns on the table with her finger as he waited for her to say something. His patience paid off when Parker finally looked at him as she propped her chin on her hand.
"I don't understand." Confusion and hurt etched across her eyes.
"I know," he murmured, taking hold of her free hand.
She looked away from him. "I thought he liked me."
"He did," Eliot said. "He does."
He winced at the pain in her voice. He knew Parker's past was less than ideal. The relationship with Hardison had been her first serious romance.
Damn it, Hardison, I am going to kick your ass for this. Where is Sophie when I need her?
He suppressed his irritation, not allowing anything to show on his face. Sophie was not here, and he would have to suck it up and deal with this. She started to pull her hand away, and his grip tightened. She lifted a moist gaze to meet his eyes.
He gave a half shrug. "I'm sorry sweetheart, but sometimes that's how it goes. People change and they don't fit so well anymore."
"That's what Hardison said, but I don't know what that means." The childlike expression on her face threw him for a moment. Parker may be naïve about social stuff, but she had never given off a sense of helplessness. Whatever her shortcomings, she always stood tough and stoic in the face of everything life cast at her.
He huffed out a breath. "It means you're changing, and so is Hardison. The two of you just don't match up anymore." As she frowned, he shook his head. "Think about what you were like three years ago and look at you now."
Her frown softened into a pensive expression. He began rubbing his thumb across her palm, trying to soothe her. After several long moments of silence she nodded. "We work together now, while I was always alone before."
"Uh, huh," he agreed. "What else?"
"Nate asked me to keep my extracurricular stuff to a minimum, and I actually do it," she answered, a half-surprised, half-resigned look on her face.
He grinned at that one. "I think Nate asked all of us to do that."
"Yeah, and it's kind of funny that we listen."
"Or don't, as the case may be." He lifted his eyebrows in emphasis. "Pretty sure Sophie and Hardison haven't given too much ground. I don't think Nate chose that subscription to Imbibe Magazine, do you?"
She gave a small gurgle of laughter before catching herself and frowning at him. He gave her a challenging look. "What else Parker? How else have you changed?"
"I don't know," she shrugged, glancing around.
He gave a soft sigh. "Sweetheart? What is the most important thing to you?" She frowned at him and he shook his head. "Seriously, Parker, think about it for a moment and don't just throw out an answer. What was most important to you three years ago?"
"Money," she replied, voice strong and sure.
She opened her mouth, but closed it again after a moment. Her eyes shifted away from him and she began to worry at her lower lip with her teeth. He could see various thoughts and emotions flicker across her face as she thought about the changes she had been through, the bonds she had formed in the team. Confusion, a dawning understanding, and an instinctive panic all passed through her eyes. As the panic crossed her mind, she began to shift, and he tightened his grip on her hand once more. Her eyes met his.
He gave her an intense look. "It's not a trap…just a question."
They sat in silence, their gazes locked. Parker's hand trembled in his. She tried to speak more than once only to snap her mouth shut before a sound could escape. A glimmer of tears glazed her eyes once more. He stood up.
She rose and they walked out of the park side by side. He never let go of her hand. They wandered aimlessly through the streets in a shared silence. She put her head back and took in a few deep, cleansing breaths, trusting him to lead her while her eyes were closed. Being in motion always made her feel better, more free; it cleared her head.
Her voice came out of nowhere. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye but kept walking silently. She did not say anything else for several minutes, but began to hum softly. Finally she whispered quietly, "I'm so tired of being here, suppressed by all my childhood fears." His hand tightened around hers and she glanced up at him but did not speak. He began to angle them back towards the bar. She had to be hungry by now, and they could always walk past if she was not ready.
Sophie Devereaux sighed as she reached for the doorknob. She could never stay after Nate began drinking in earnest. It hurt her too much to watch him implode. Eliot always took responsibility for putting him to bed.
I handle the morning after so much better. It's easier to watch him put himself back together.
The silence struck her as soon as she entered. Her eyebrows lifted in a graceful arch as she stepped into the living room. Hardison sat on the couch, staring at the muted television with glassy eyes. The kitchen was empty and Parker nowhere to be seen. She looked back to the hacker.
He lifted a hand to acknowledge her, but never looked up, never spoke. Sophie frowned.
What on earth is going on?
She walked into the kitchen, her frown growing as she noticed the dishes still in the sink. Eliot never left without cleaning up. Her eyes narrowed as she spotted Parker's scarf. She dropped her purse on the countertop and started the coffee. She opened the refrigerator and, upon finding Eliot's orange juice, poured herself a glass before walking back into the living room.
As she sat down on the chair she looked Hardison over carefully. "Do you want to tell me what's going on?"
He started in surprise and blinked at her. After opening and closing his mouth a couple of times, he finally slumped back against the couch. "What do you want to know?"
Sophie stared at him for a long moment, but he refused to meet her gaze. "All right, let's start off easy, shall we? Where is Nate?"
"Upstairs…he hasn't started moving around yet." The hacker's nonchalant shrug did not match his downcast eyes.
"Good; then he'll be in time for coffee," she replied, a small smile lifting the corners of her mouth for a moment before she focused once more. "And where is Eliot?"
Now he truly slouched, his shoulders hunching slightly. "Looking for Parker."
"Is something wrong with Parker?" she asked gently.
He took a deep breath before sitting up. He lifted his eyes, and hers widened at the sorrow deep within his gaze. "She took off out the window this morning."
She put her glass down and reached out to place a soft hand on his forearm. "We knew Parker was going to go on one of her sprees."
He shook his head. "Not like this."
She frowned. "Alec?" His head jerked up at her use of his first name. She continued in her softest voice. "What happened?"
He sighed. "I broke up with Parker."
She sat back surprised, but not truly shocked.
I didn't think this was going to happen quite so soon.
Over the past few months, she had watched as the pair drifted apart. Parker's need for unfettered freedom clashed with Hardison's tendency to go to ground. What he thought homey, comfortable and safe; she found to be a stifling, dark entrapment. Sophie had talked to Nate, but he counseled her to stay out of it.
"But Nate…" she protested, wanting to spare her friends the heartbreak.
"No, Sophie." He shook his head before looking into the living room. "Parker and Hardison are good friends, and it was a good first relationship for Parker, but it's not a long term thing. He wants something more permanent, someone waiting for him. That makes her feel trapped, so she flies off into one of her sprees. It leaves him feeling abandoned. On the other hand, his very hyperactivity doesn't give her the stability she needs to truly feel safe. Until she feels safe enough to stay, she won't and he'll continue to feel that abandonment."
She sighed and stirred her tea. "I know, I know. I just hate romantic break-ups. Besides if not Hardison, then who would ever manage to make Parker feel safe?"
He turned an amused gaze on her. "Oh, I'm sure there's someone." He turned and began walking away.
"Nate? Who are you talking about? Nate, you come back here!"
He just threw her a smile over his shoulder.
She turned back to the hacker. "And she didn't react well?"
He snorted. "I tried to be as gentle as I could, but she took it pretty badly. She asked me what she did wrong."
Sophie winced. "What did you say?"
"What do you think I said?" he exclaimed, bouncing to his feet and beginning to pace. "I tried to explain it to her, tried to show her that she hadn't done anything wrong and we'd just grown apart, but she just went right out the window."
Hardison shrugged. "I looked outside the window to try and see her, but she vanished. Then Eliot came in." He grimaced.
"Oh?" she inquired.
"Yeah," he replied, walking over to fling himself back on the couch. "And he was pissed."
"Why on earth was he angry?" she asked in confusion.
"Parker was upset."
"I don't know, but there's something there."
A voice from the stairs interrupted. "Acceptance."
They looked up to see Nate leaning against the bannister. Although his bloodshot eyes showed the remnants of his hangover, his face showed no signs of his dark night. As he lifted an eyebrow at their surprised looks, he continued down the stairs and strolled into the kitchen. Pouring himself a cup of coffee, he stared into the living room where the other two sat silently, waiting for him to speak. With a quirk of a smile he took a seat across from Sophie so he could see both of them. He took a long swig of coffee and then put the cup down on the table.
Leaning backward he focused on the two of them. "If you want my opinion, Eliot gives Parker the one thing she truly needs…acceptance. He takes her as she is. Even when he complains about something being wrong with her, he still accepts her. He doesn't ask her to change; he just tries to catch her when she falls."
Sophie's eyes widened as she realized what he meant. "Stability," she said.
Nate tilted his head towards her as he picked up his cup. Hardison leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees and burying his face in his hands. "And I didn't."
Nate rubbed his forehead and muttered, "There's a curse between us."
"What?" Hardison asked, looking up at him in confusion as Sophie directed a frown towards the leader.
"Nothing," Nate replied. "Just a line from a song, so beside the point."
Sophie leaned forward and patted Hardison's arm. As the hacker turned to look at her, she gave him an understanding smile. "If you're asking whether you were good for Parker? Yes, at first. You were exactly who she needed for her first romance. For the long term though, you two are too different."
Hardison gave her a sad smile. "I know. That's what I told her."
Sophie opened her mouth to answer him, but her voice cut off as someone kicked in the door. A dark-haired man strode through the door and focused on Nate. Sophie flinched back from the crazed look in his eyes. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted Hardison typing a code into his handheld.
"You bastard!" The man roared even as Nate rose to his feet. Nate's honest confusion seemed to infuriate the man even more. "You ruined everything! I almost had everything in my hands, but you interrupted my work! Two more shipments…just two more and I was set for life!"
Nate stepped forward. The man growled. He pulled a gun. Nate froze. Sophie's breath caught.
"You ruined me," hissed the invader. "Now I destroy you!"
The gun bucked in his hand twice. Sophie watched as everything went into slow motion. Nate's body jerked as the two bullets slammed into him. It seemed to take forever for him to fall. As he hit the ground, everything sped back up.
"Die, you bastard!" The stranger spat at his fallen foe and strode out of the room.
Sophie found her voice at last. "Nate!"
Sophie paced the waiting room. She had forced herself to keep it together during the frantic moments at the loft and all through the ambulance ride. Finally alone for a moment, she allowed herself to shake while Hardison stood outside trying to reach the others. Her deep brown eyes glistened as they returned again and again to the double doors at the other end of the waiting room. A tear would streak down her face every few minutes, but she did not wipe them away.
She still had Nate's blood on her hands.
Her body shuddered as she squeezed her eyes shut tight. So much blood still coated her hands. How much blood could one person lose? The coppery scent, the sticky feel made her nauseous, but she could not bear to leave the room. What if the doctor came in? Or maybe it would be a nurse with an update? She had to be here; she had to know.
She turned a wide, tear-filled gaze to the speaker. An older woman stood there; a nurse who probably should have been retired by now. Her face seemed weathered and hard with experience, but her eyes glowed with a soft compassion. When she stepped forward and reached for Sophie's hand with some baby wipes, Sophie choked back a small sob.
"Come sit down, Miss," insisted the nurse, Bobbi, by her nametag. "Let's clean you up while you're waiting. We don't even have to leave the room."
Sophie followed her, docile and pliant as long as she could stay. Bobbi helped her remove her jacket and then began wiping the blood off her hands and forearms. The nurse kept her movements slow and gentle, even taking a few extra minutes to get to the red liquid under the grifter's fingernails. Finally the nurse finished, but she did not let go of Sophie's hand. Sophie raised her eyes to look into the woman's gentle brown gaze.
Bobbi gave her a sympathetic smile. "Your friend has the best trauma surgeon in town working on him."
She huffed out a shaky chuckle. "Of course he does. He wouldn't be Nate if he didn't."
"Does Nate usually manage to get lucky when he's in trouble?" came the curious question.
"Oh, yes," Sophie nodded. "It somehow always works that way. He gets lucky or clever in hard times. Disaster always seems to strike when things aren't in upheaval. Of course, I am not quite sure how that holds up with him being shot right now."
"Trouble?" Bobbie asked carefully.
Sophie pursed her lips before giving a small shrug. She tilted her head. "We just finished a consulting job, and it had some difficult moments. Plus two of our coworkers are having personal issues."
The nurse nodded and patted her hand. "Well, perhaps something good will come out of all this and he can keep his lucky streak going."
"I hope so," Sophie whispered, looking towards the double doors once more. "I really, really hope so."
Before Bobbi could speak, the entrance door flew open and a blonde woman rushed in. Her eyes scanned the room before focusing sharply on the grifter.
"Maggie!" Sophie sighed in relief. "Thank God!"
Maggie hurried over and sat next to the brunette, wrapping a comforting arm around her.
Bobbi smiled and rose. "Since you've got someone here now, I'll go back to my rounds."
"Thank you," Sophie replied, gratitude pouring off her. "I truly appreciate your help."
The nurse smiled and slipped out of the room. Sophie leaned into Maggie and the blonde's arm tightened in response.
"How did you get here so quickly?" Sophie asked.
Maggie gave her a small smile. "Alec called me first. He's still trying to reach the others. Have you heard anything?"
"No," Sophie answered. Her eyes strayed to the double door before something occurred to her. She sat up and turned towards Maggie. The blonde pulled her arm away and looked at her curiously.
"Why aren't you in Los Angeles?"
Maggie rolled her eyes. "Haven't you checked your messages yet? I called yesterday to let you know I'd be in town for a few days helping with a new exhibit at the Harvard Art Museums."
"Oh," Sophie sighed in relief. "I thought you were in some kind of trouble."
"Sophie, not everybody gets into trouble as often as you lot do," replied the blonde, shaking her head. "Now, Alec told me what happened to Nate. He said he didn't know the man?"
The grifter shook her head. "I didn't recognize him either. I have no idea who he was or where Nate might have crossed paths with him. God, I wish Elliot had been there!"
"Where is Eliot? And Parker?"
Sophie gave a sniff. "Oh this has been a ridiculous morning."
"Sophie?" Maggie prompted.
"Right," she nodded, giving herself a shake. "Our last job centered on a handful of children, so Nate took it rather badly. In addition, one of the little boys reminded Parker of her brother, so she wasn't reacting well either."
"Nate pulled out the whiskey as soon as you got back and Parker left?"
"You're half right." Sophie shifted in her seat, glancing at the double doors before focusing on her friend. "Nate pulled out the whiskey, and I got ready to go home. Parker certainly looked like she planned to go on one of her tears, but she didn't. Eliot seemed to keep her calm."
"Eliot?" Maggie asked. "Not Alec?"
"I know. Hardison and Parker have been going through some rough spots. I talked to Nate about it, but he seemed to have expected it."
"Nate always expects it," the blonde stated with a tiny snort. "He's uncanny in figuring things out. That's why it's so hard when he gets blindsided."
"He thought they were outgrowing each other."
"He's probably right."
Sophie huffed, throwing a small glare towards the double doors. "I am not telling him that. Getting back to the story, after I left, they made sure Nate made it to bed and probably stayed over if I know them. Sometime this morning Hardison broke things off with Parker."
"Ouch." Maggie winced.
The brunette nodded. "Parker thought she did something wrong, and went out the kitchen window to get away. Apparently Eliot came in just then, got the story from Hardison, and he didn't take it well either."
"Humph," sniffed the blonde. "About time he looked under his nose."
"What?" Sophie exclaimed, staring at her friend.
Maggie smiled. "I've watched him watching her. She's the first one he checks on; the first he picks to protect when he has to make a choice." The blonde shook her head at the surprised grifter. "Really, Sophie, what did you think was happening?"
"I don't think I ever actually thought about it," she mused, remembering scenes and instances that now took on whole new meanings.
"So I see," Maggie humored her. "Eliot went to look for Parker?"
Sophie pulled herself back to the present. "Yes, he did. I came in a little while later to find Hardison in a daze over the whole thing. He told me about it, and Nate overheard. We talked for a few minutes when that lunatic burst in and…"
Her voice trailed off and she bit her lip. Maggie reached out and took one of Sophie's cold hands between both of her own. She gave the brunette a stern glare. "Now you listen to me, Sophie Devereaux. Nate Ford is a strong man, and he is not going to let a couple of bullets stop him."
"But…" Sophie started, tears gathering in her eyes.
Maggie rolled right over her. "I know he drinks too much and goes into dark depressions, believe me, I know. I also know he's not going to leave this world while he thinks even one person needs him. And all four of you do. He knows that!"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," answered the blonde with absolute conviction. "Nate and I still talk you know. He's still one of my best friends."
Sophie chuckled softly through her tears. "This is so bizarre."
One elegant eyebrow lifted sarcastically. "Which part? The part where I am still good friends with my ex-husband, or the part where one of my other best friends is the woman who's in love with him?"
Dark eyes widened. "I'm not…"
"Don't even start," Maggie said in aggravation. "The two of you could drive a saint to drink...and Nathan's no saint." Her voice dropped into a whisper. "Never imagined we'd end like this." She sighed, "I know damn well you're in love with him. It doesn't take a genius…or a con."
Sophie bit her lip in consternation, but Maggie shook her head. "And it also doesn't take a rocket scientist to know he's in love with you."
"You don't…I mean…well," Sophie stumbled over her words.
Her friend smiled. "If something had happened while he was married to me? Yes, that would have bothered me. This? This is wonderful."
Even as Sophie gaped at her friend in amazement, the entrance door flew open again.
Eliot ushered Parker and Hardison into the waiting room. His eyes scanned the place before settling on the two seated women. He could see tear tracks still fresh on Sophie's face while Maggie held one of the Englishwoman's hands. Something subtle relaxed in his shoulders.
Sophie's okay and Maggie's both safe and here to help. Just Nate to worry about.
That had been bothering him. Hardison had not managed to be very clear about the whole thing, and even managed to be incoherent altogether during portions of the story. It was clear the hacker still felt rattled. During his talking, Eliot did manage to gather that Nate was shot, Sophie was in the room and Maggie got involved somehow. He turned his gaze to Sophie.
She shook her head and he gave a grunt of displeasure.
I hate hospitals.
After a few moments of silence he glanced around once more and realized everyone seemed to be looking at him. "What?" he growled.
They shifted and shuffled, but nobody spoke. Maggie gave him a direct glare, one that told him to quit being dense. He frowned at her but took a more careful look at his team. They were shaken. Maggie had Sophie in hand, and Parker had been with him, but Hardison appeared lost. He kept moving, unable to sit down for more than a few seconds before flying up to pace. His frenetic movement kept startling the women just as they would settle back down.
"Hardison!" Eliot snapped out.
The hacker jumped. He turned haunted eyes on the hitter. Eliot took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down. With a gentler voice he tried again. "Where's your laptop?" As his friend glanced down at his bag, Eliot gave a quick nod. "Good; get it out. I need you to pull a picture of the guy who did this and start running a search. We need to know who he is."
Hardison hesitated. "Look, man, not saying I disagree, but now? 'Cause really? I think…"
"Hey," Eliot interrupted, leveling his best "Nate" look at the man. "This guy seriously wanted to do some damage. I need to know who he is if I'm going to stop him from coming back."
Hardison froze. Sophie went pale. The entire room seemed to hold its breath. With a sudden burst of energy the hacker dove for his bag. Between one breath and the next, the computer genius had his machine humming along, skating through the intricate world of cyberspace.
The room stayed silent. Parker wandered between Eliot and Sophie as if she could not decide who she needed more. Maggie held Sophie's hand while Sophie's eyes drifted between the double doors and Hardison. Eliot leaned against the wall and kept watch over his broken team.
An hour passed in the unnatural silence.
"I got him!" Hardison's usually jubilant announcement came out in a hiss of anger. "Sam DeLuca, former accountant for the Philadelphia Museum of Art."
Eliot frowned, rifling through his memory. "Fallout from our job last month? The one we finished before taking the kids job?"
The hacker nodded. "Let me look, but I'd bet on it. Probably had a racket going on behind the scenes, and when we took down the fraud scam…"
"He lost his side business," Sophie sneered. "So decides to shoot Nate? How'd he even find him?"
The hitter shook his head. "Probably through one of the families. We thought we'd caught everyone, but we missed him. They wouldn't have thought much about an accountant asking."
Hardison gave a low whistle. "This guy's got some major debts built up. He's in hock to half the city."
"Gambling," Parker stated. Everyone looked at her. She shrugged. "What? It's all about the money. He's an accountant with that much debt. It's gambling and he probably used the art to pay his bookies. With that dried up, he's in a bad spot. Figured he could take it out on someone."
Eliot snorted. "He should be running. Even just staying in the same part of the country with your unpaid bookies is suicide." Hardison handed him a zip drive and he nodded. "This everything?"
"Yeah," the hacker said. "That's got the numbers as well as a list of the art that went mysteriously 'missing' on the same nights he happened to be in the museum to look at their books." Hardison snorted. "If you're going to run a con, you shouldn't leave such detailed records in your online calendar."
"No," agreed Eliot, "but it makes our job easier."
Without warning the double doors opened. A tall man in scrubs entered the room and looked around. His tired eyes passed over the faces in front of him.
"Yes!" Sophie exclaimed, half-rising from her seat. She stopped, unsure if she wanted to move closer or not. He moved over and took a seat next to her.
"Mrs. Ford?" he asked.
"No, we're not married."
The doctor frowned. They could see the tension in his face. He wanted to talk to them, but the regulations held him silent. Sophie opened her mouth to try and persuade him, but he held up a hand.
"Ma'am, I'm sorry, but I have very strict rules. They're meant to protect my patient. I cannot just set them aside."
Sophie shook her head and tried to speak, but Maggie interrupted her. "She's his fiancée. I'm his ex-wife and this is his team. He doesn't have anyone else."
The doctor waivered and Eliot stepped forward, holding out an unfolded piece of paper. "Doc, I hold his power of attorney. Go ahead and let the ladies know, okay?"
He looked at the paper for a moment and nodded. "I'm Doctor McLeod. I did the surgery on Mr. Ford. We've removed the two bullets, and he's still holding on. However, I should warn you, Mr. Ford has lost a great deal of blood. His condition is still critical."
"But he's alive, right? And he's going to be okay?" Parker shot the questions out, glaring at the doctor, almost daring him to contradict her.
"Miss…" Dr. McLeod started, but she jumped up.
"No!" She exclaimed. "It's Nate. Nate's always okay. He just is; he has to be."
She pulled away and stalked over to Eliot. He stiffened as she moved to stand behind his shoulder, but he forced himself to relax. His eyes narrowed on her for a moment before he turned back to give the doctor a nod.
Dr. McLeod nodded back. "Yes, he's alive, but his body has suffered some extreme trauma. One of the bullets only cracked a rib, but the other one nicked his lung. We've got the bleeding stopped, but between blood loss and the lung damage, he is facing a difficult fight."
Sophie tossed her head with a sniff. "Nate excels in difficult fights. It's what he does." Despite her strong tone, tears pricked the corners of her eyes.
The doctor patted her arm. "They are moving him to a private room. In a few minutes one of the nurses will let you know the room numbers. I'm afraid visitors will need to be kept to a minimum."
Eliot broke in before anyone else could speak. "Won't work, Doc. Nate's still a target and needs to be guarded." As Dr. McLeod started to argue, the hitter interrupted. "This is for his safety and the hospital's; this guy might come back."
The doctor frowned. "I'm sorry, but who are you people?"
Maggie cleared her throat. "Leverage Consulting and Associates; they handle a variety of delicate and sensitive jobs for a rather select clientele." Dr. McLeod's eyebrows rose, but Maggie continued before he could speak. "Unfortunately this means they have acquired a number of enemies who really don't care about innocents in the crossfire. I would take Eliot's warning seriously if I were you."
He frowned at all of them for several seconds before surrendering with a shrug. "How would you like to handle this then?"
Eliot gave him a faint smirk, but kept his nod respectful. "We're going to need the visiting hours waived. At least two of us will be with Nate at all times. The other three will be in and out, so I'd prefer to avoid a repetitive argument."
"I'll pass the orders along," Dr. McLeod promised.
"Good; other than that, just keep your people out of our way. Sophie and Hardison need to meet the nurses that'll be in to check on Nate. No strangers. Any strangers come in and we'll have a problem."
The doctor nodded and rose. "I'll see to it. Someone should be here shortly to take you back."
As he left the room, Eliot turned towards the rest of the team, pulling Parker around to his side. "As soon as we've seen Nate, I'm going to need Maggie and Parker. Sophie, you and Hardison are going to stay with Nate."
"What are you going to do?" Sophie asked with trepidation.
"I'm going to go talk to a man," he answered in a flat tone. His anger flared as he glanced down at the zip drive he had taken from Hardison. With a deep breath he forced it down. Now was not the time. "Maggie's going to make a couple of calls, and Parker's going to find me a door."
Before Sophie could say anything else, the door opened and a nurse beckoned them to follow her. All conversation ceased as they streamed out of the room. None of them noticed the curious and half-fearful glances they received as they passed hospital workers in the hallway. As long as no one moved in their direction, their entire focus centered on getting to Nate.
Just outside of the door to Nate's room, the nurse cautioned them. "He's unconscious, and hooked up to several machines. Don't panic; they're mostly there to monitor his condition."
"Thank you," Maggie said, nodding at the woman.
As she walked off, Eliot touched Sophie's shoulder. "Can I have a minute?" he asked when she looked at him. She gave him a long look before nodding with a faint smile.
Eliot slipped into the quiet room, his eyes immediately focusing on the pale man lying in the single bed. Nate looked…wrong. That was the only word that came to the hitter's mind. His boss, his friend should not be so frail looking. Drunk, hung over, just flat tired…no matter what, Nate always looked somehow capable. It might be sheer stubbornness keeping him on his feet at times, but it was something. Now, there was nothing; just the slight movement of breathing.
"Hey, boss," Eliot spoke softly as he walked up beside the bed. "You look like hell." He broke off and cleared his throat. "You're going to have to wake up soon, Nate. Ain't no way in hell I'm doing your job permanently…just going to borrow it for a day or so."
Leaning his forearms on the side of the bed, the hitter stared at the quiet figure laying there. He could still remember meeting this man; still remember the internal doubts over any one guy being able to keep a group like theirs together long enough to finish a job, especially not the guy that had chased each of them at one time or another. And yet, Nate had actually pulled it off. Memories, snapshots of the past few years flickered through his mind.
Nate is counting in his ear, "…three," as Parker runs behind him towards the edge of the roof.
He bites out, "She's gone."
"Son of a…" He can hear Nate muttering.
"Yeehaaa!" Parker yells as she jumps off the roof. He and Hardison run to the edge and watch her fall.
"That's twenty pounds of crazy in a five pound bag."
The countertop is bruising his back and the damn Butcher is choking him.
"Now I kill you."
Using a rolling pin he manages to pull the appetizers over to him. Grabbing one he shoves it in the bastard's eye.
The Butcher starts hollering, "It burns!"
Grabbing a tray he hits the man over the head and knocks him out. "It's the lemon juice."
Of course that's when Nate walks in. "Did you just kill a guy with an appetizer?"
He gives a half-shrug. "I don't know. Maybe."
He looks back at Nate one last time before climbing into the helicopter. The man just stood there waiting for the authorities to take him into custody, and he was doing it for his team…his family. Nate's words burn in his mind.
"You guys are the most honorable people I have ever met in my life. You've become my family. My only family. I won't forget that."
They had all told their stories of how they had stolen, or at least tried to steal, the dagger of Aqu'Abi. In the end, none of the thieves had managed to steal the dagger, and their "honest" man knew the entire time. He had even managed to help out by taking Gutman down.
Nate gives him a look. "You're welcome."
"So," says Hardison, "we did all that work for nothing."
"Not for nothing," Nate insists. "No. You know, you guys, sometimes it's easy to forget why it is you stopped working alone and became a team."
From working with the team for the first time to the family standing in the hallway letting him have his moment, the change startled and surprised him every time he thought about it. They had grown and changed in more profound ways than he had even thought possible, and most of it could be credited to the man in front of him. Despite his problems, whether the alcohol or the control issues, Nate tried to do what was best for them. He was human, he screwed up, but damn if he did not try. Even more, he trusted Eliot to back his play, watch their backs and keep them safe.
For Eliot, that meant more than he could ever put into words. He grew up hard, and lived harder. To be given that kind of acceptance, that kind of trust…words failed him. He rested his forehead on his arms for a moment.
Damn it, Nate. Don't you dare die on me. I can't keep them together.
A line from one of his sister's favorite songs crossed his mind. "What will become of us if there's no one to watch over us?"
He did not know how long he remained there in the silence before a soft knock drew his attention to the door. It opened and Sophie peeked in.
"Eliot?" Her voice quiet with understanding, she did not enter until he nodded at her.
"Hey," he said, clearing his voice. "Sorry, I just…"
She gave him a tiny smile and stepped up next to him. As she looked down at Nate, she leaned her head on Eliot's arm. "It's okay. You needed it."
He wrapped his arm around her shoulders in a sideways hug before looking over her head to the door. "Where is everybody?"
"Hardison went to get a couple of drinks," she replied. "Maggie's in the hall keeping Parker steady."
"I better go rescue her," he said humorously.
She raised an eyebrow. "Maggie? Or Parker?"
He chuckled, "Both maybe."
"Go on with you then. Do what you have to, but get back soon, okay?"
He let her hug him once more before he slipped out the door. Hardison came down the hallway and went straight into the room as Eliot inclined his head towards it. Parker and Maggie looked towards him.
"You two go in and see him before we leave."
Alone for a moment, he took a deep breath and pulled on every bit of control he possessed. His eyes went flat and his face cold.
Time to pay a visit to Sam DeLuca.
The door burst open with an explosive burst of splinters. Eliot stormed through the now ruined doorway, rage in his heart and murder in his eyes. His target had jumped up from a large chair when the door had crashed against the wall, but now Sam DeLuca fell back from the feral man stalking towards him.
Both men turned towards the snapping feminine voice, one pissed and one hopeful. DeLuca watched as an elegant blonde woman stepped through the door. His hope shrank as her disdainful gaze landed on him. If the first invader's eyes were fiery, hers were chips of ice.
"You can't kill him," Maggie stated calmly. "Sterling actually has to have a living, breathing person to arrest."
"Wasn't planning on killing him," Eliot bit out. "Sterling doesn't need him in one piece."
DeLuca shrank away from the furious man. The hitter stalked closer, eyes narrowing. "Did you enjoy it? Did you enjoy putting two bullets into my boss?"
"I…I…" DeLuca could only stammer. "He…he ruined my business!"
"Your business?" Now Maggie hissed at him. "Your business was worth a man's life?"
The accountant could not speak. He had never expected this kind of reaction. His anger and fear had sent him over to Ford's house in a boiling mad state. Now he realized the outcome would be even worse.
Eliot grabbed DeLuca by the front of his shirt and hauled him to his feet. Even though DeLuca stood two inches taller, he felt like a poodle in the jaws of a Rottweiler. Eliot shook him.
"Well?" the hitter demanded. "Answer the lady! Was your business worth a man's life?"
"They were going to kill me! I didn't have the money!" DeLuca shouted.
"So you decided to put a bullet into someone else?"
"I…I…I don't…I don't know…why I…" he stammered and stumbled before going silent. Eliot glared at him and he felt his heart shiver.
His shivers grew worse as Eliot hauled him in close and hissed directly into his face. "You're going to have a long time to contemplate the mistake you made today; a very long time."
The hitter let him go and DeLuca tripped. As he struggled to his feet once more, a swift left jab knocked him unconscious.
Eliot sneered. "He should have stuck with numbers."
"Obviously," Maggie sighed. "In the meantime, we need to get out of here. Sterling should be here any moment, and while he's agreed to 'overlook' you, he certainly won't have any qualms about arresting you if he comes face to face with you."
"Yeah, I know." Eliot frowned.
"No," said Maggie. "You got to look him in the eye, scare him, and hit him. We sent Interpol all the information they need. Let's go."
Eliot grinned at her as they left the office. "You're getting pretty good at this."
She rolled her eyes. "Thank you, but I believe I'll stay on the reserve team if you please. I don't need this much excitement on a regular basis. Now come on, we need to get out there before our driver thinks we need a rescue."
"You do know she's listening on the earbuds, right?" he asked.
She raised an eyebrow. "You do recall this is Parker, right?"
"Hey! What does that mean?" Parker's voice came over their buds.
Eliot smirked but Maggie shook her head. "It means you might decide I need rescuing from him, or vice versa."
"Oh, yeah, maybe. It would be a good rescue though."
Both of them bit back laughter as they heard Parker's reply. They could hear her singing along with the radio as they made their way out to the van. Maggie thought the song particularly apt for these two, even if they still had a ways to go before they saw it for themselves.
"When everything's made to be broken, I just want you to know who I am."
"Come on," Eliot instructed. "Let's get back to the hospital."
Three months…it's been three months since I woke up in the hospital.
Nate mused as he walked across the green grass and gravel walks of the cemetery. It had certainly been a roller coaster ride since the moment he woke up looking into Sophie's tear-filled eyes. He only managed to stay awake for a few minutes, but everyone was there. He saw them and they talked to him. Even drugged he had felt the tension leech out of the room. All he knew was that his family was safe. No one had been hurt.
He winced at that thought. He made the mistake of saying something similar when he could finally speak. The temperature of the room dropped twenty degrees.
"Nathan Ford!" Sophie exclaimed, eyes snapping in fury. "What do you mean no one was hurt? You were shot! Twice!"
"Well," he stammered. "I just meant…" He looked around the room for some support, but the rest of them were glaring just as strongly.
Eliot shook his head. "Don't look at me, boss. I'm still pissed I had to do both my job and yours for the past while."
"Hey, man," Hardison snorted. "If you're going to be stupid enough to say it, you can deal with the fallout."
Parker just made a face when he glanced at her.
He sighed and turned back to Sophie. "Okay, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. I just remember falling and worrying about you and Hardison being next."
She rolled her eyes and placed a gentle hand on his cheek. "I know, Nate, and I understand. However, you need to understand something as well. You are as important to us as we are to you. You are not an acceptable sacrifice."
Nate chuckled and tucked his hands into his pockets. They had pulled him out of the hospital as soon as it was medically sound, and proceeded to nursemaid him to death at home. Between his team, Maggie, and a handful of others, he barely had time to shift before someone popped up with medicine, water, new pillows. It was a nice feeling, being taken care of, but cabin fever had set in quickly.
All these months later, he could still sense someone tailing him every so often. He let it be; the family still felt nervous about his brush with death. Sophie still had nightmares about that morning, and none of the "kids" had gotten back to their old routines yet either. Hardison's insomnia sometimes reached Eliot's level. Parker could usually be found glued to one of them, hesitant to let them out of her sight. For his part, Eliot hardly ever left. He and Parker would camp out in one of the extra rooms more often than not. Nate sighed. If following him around made them more comfortable, he could live with it. He even expected them to show up here eventually, even though none of them had been to this place before.
It had been far too long since his last visit, but he still remembered the way. He made his way slowly to the only willow tree in the cemetery. As expected, he found someone waiting for him.
"Maggie," he acknowledged as he lowered himself to sit next to her.
She gave him a smile. "Hello, Nate. I see you've managed to slip away from your guards."
"Oh," he shrugged. "I doubt it. I expect them to come strolling up soon."
The two of them fell silent as their eyes moved to the simple white headstone. Maggie reached out to brush some dirt away from the inscription: Sam Ford – 1998-2006 – Beloved son lost too soon – "The summer's gone, and all the roses falling; 'tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide". Nate put an arm around Maggie as she leaned into him.
"I still miss him." Maggie's calm, matter-of-fact statement said more than any tearful declaration ever could.
"I know," Nate replied. "Me, too."
They sat there for several long minutes in silence, the broken family recognizing the bonds that still bound them together.
Maggie suddenly gave a small huff of laughter. Nate glanced down at her and raised an eyebrow. She nodded towards a small cluster of trees. "Alec is trying to be sneaky."
He smiled. "Guess that means Eliot and Parker are around here somewhere as well."
"Sophie will be walking up shortly then," she agreed.
Nate stood up and offered her a hand. Both of them turned their heads and caught the brunette coming slowly towards them. She stopped when they looked at her, but gave a graceful shrug and joined them.
Taking Nate's arm in hers, she turned a gentle smile towards Maggie. "And how have you been?"
"Sophie," Maggie laughed. "I just saw you two days ago."
The grifter leaned her head on Nate's shoulder with a chuckle. "Well, a lot can happen in two days."
Maggie frowned in confusion. "Did something happen? Did I miss something?"
"Sophie," Nate scolded with a shake of his head. Despite the scolding tone, his eyes were warm and amused. "Quit teasing her."
Parker came bouncing up behind Sophie as Eliot strolled along behind. "Did you tell her?" The thief's voice vibrated with excitement.
"Tell me what?" Maggie asked.
"Sophie hasn't told you yet?" Hardison asked in astonishment as he walked up. "I didn't know she'd managed to keep that one."
Maggie blinked at him before turning a glare on Sophie. Nate threw an imploring gaze at Eliot. The hitter smirked at him but stepped up.
"Hardison, leave it alone," he said, a finger pointing at the hacker for emphasis. At the same time he grabbed Parker by the waist and anchored her to his side. "Sweetheart, you need to calm down. Let Sophie talk."
With both of the more hyperactive members under control, Maggie gave Sophie a very direct look. "Tell me what?" she demanded again.
"Well," Sophie began slowly, seeming to feel her words out before actually speaking. "Nate and I…well, we…" Her words trailed off, and she fumbled for new ones before giving a deep sigh. Letting go of Nate, she held her left hand out to Maggie.
A diamond glittered in the morning light.
"Oh, my God!" Maggie exclaimed, her smile suddenly blinding. "Really?"
Sophie bit her lip, nodding.
"That's wonderful!" The blonde pulled her friend into a hug. "I am so happy for you!"
Sophie laughed as she returned the embrace. After a moment Maggie let her go and turned to Nate.
"It's about time!" she said, pulling him into a hug as well. "Congratulations."
He just gave her a smile when she let him go. Sophie took his arm once more and the members of this most unusual family smiled at each other. Nate glanced around, taking in each face, each person, realizing how close it had come to being over. This tight-knit group had almost lost everything, but they had come out all the stronger in the end. His smile turned gentle as he glanced down at the headstone before turning to the others.
"Give me a minute."
They walked away with nods and smiles. He watched them for a moment. Sophie and Hardison bracketed Maggie as Sophie told her about the engagement while Hardison tried to break in with the tale of their latest job. Parker and Eliot followed them, Parker wandering to look at stones or flowers that caught her eye before coming back to Eliot's side. He smiled and knelt down.
Lifting a hand, he brushed his fingertips across his son's name.
"You know, Sam, I never liked my dad's legacy to me. It always ended up hurting someone." He stopped and peered over his shoulder at the rest of the team before turning back. "I hope you're proud of mine. They are my legacy, mine and yours. I love you; I'll always love you."
He rose and began walking away, walking into a future he had almost lost, a future reborn. He could hear a song playing from somewhere. The line made him smile, "What's worth the price is always worth the fight."