When Sam gets sick, really sick, Nathan stops travelling for IYS. He takes a desk job, files reports, is home at five. It doesn’t help.
Sam smiles like he hangs the moon every time he walks in through the front door, but he gets weaker ever day. Soon, Saturday afternoons in the backyard will turn into Saturday afternoons on the couch. The list of things Sam can do grows shorter all the time.
Shit, Nathan thinks sometimes, in the privacy of his head, his time is getting shorter.
Sam’s going to die.
His son, their miracle, Maggie’s angel, is going to die.
And there’s nothing he can do.
Then he finds the treatment. New. Experimental. Side effects. He reads all those words and big phrases and remembers only one: Fifty percent success rate.
To the ears of a man about to lose everything, it’s a magic formula. Abracadabra for the parents of cancer-sick third graders.
He doesn’t take it to Maggie, knows she won’t be able to take another hit. Some days, she seems as frail as Sam already, fading with her only child.
No, he prints the information, gets the contacts and studies and packs it all into a neat folder. Then he goes to Ian.
And Ian says no.
He rages. He rants and raves and gets drunk and punches Jim in his goddamn face when the man tries to placate him. He screams and drinks.
He comes home late and kisses Sam’s sleeping and sweat-wet forehead, runs a hand down his wife’s side. Then he walks back out the door, sits on the front porch and cries.
Later, he’ll hate. Later his rage will go cold, will freeze to ice under his tender care. Later. Right now, all that penetrates his grief-fogged mind is that he spent the past twenty years saving IYS millions upon millions and they don’t find it in themselves to save a single thing for him.
Only his son. All he wants is his son.
And Ian said no.
He considers his options. Nathan is a smart man, knows all the tricks. He grew up with a criminal for a father, knew how to pick a lock before he could write his name. He could get the money. Maybe they’d catch him, maybe they wouldn’t.
Life in prison sounds wonderful, if Sam is there to press his hand against the glass of the visitor’s booth two, five, twenty years down the road.
The temptation is there.
But Nathan Ford is an honest man.
So he goes to talk to Ian again.
And Ian says no.
He goes looking for a heist. It can’t be art because before you can fence art, you need to wait for the heat to die down. There is no time.
He looks for something that pays cash but he’s not a hitter, like Spencer, not a grifter like Sophie. He’s not a good enough with computers to pull off what Hardison does.
He spends days, weeks, looking, searching. Trying to find something. Anything.
He’s an honest man and he doesn’t want to, but Maggie quit her job and spends her days in bed with Sam, curled around him, clinging to him, as if her hands are enough to keep him here. To keep him alive.
They’re both so pale.
The package is on the front porch when he comes home one day. It’s a simple, brown, square thing and Nathan picks it up with fear and hope mingling in his guts.
He checks it habitually for any traps or surprises, but finds nothing. Inside are two hundred thousand dollars and a computer printed note.
You’re a good man, Nathan Ford. Save your son.
In a split second, dozen names flit through his mind. People who have this kind of money. But only a few remain when he sorts out all those who would never help him. The money might be from Sophie Devereaux, who he spent the past decade flirting with, playing games. It might be from Parker, who has a soft spot for children and owes him for letting her go in Italy. It might be from Hardison, who has given Nathan gifts before. Concert tickets, once an ugly novelty mug. Little things. The kid likes to tease. Or it might be from Eliot, who has, in their five-year-long game of tag, always, always been civil, never raised a hand against Nathan, even when he could have.
They are his favorite four criminals, the ones that have their own sort of honor. He likes chasing them because he knows they’ll play fair, within their own set of rules. He knows they’ll never pull innocents into the hunt, will never hurt anyone. Well, except Eliot. But he tends to reserve his skills for people who hit him first.
Of all the filthy rich criminals he has chased at one point or another in his career, only those four would ever consider helping him out.
He checks the whole package for prints, but finds nothing and then spends the rest of the night agonizing over whether or not to use the money.
He’s an honest man.
But he’s a father first.
He sends a prayer heavenwards for whoever sent him the key to saving his son, and then goes to arrange for Sam’s new treatment.
At first, there is no betterment. Sam is frail as ever, so small, half dead already. Maggie hopes again and cries all the more for it.
And then, five weeks into the new drugs, Sam wakes up one morning and doesn’t puke until he’s crying.
Two months later he spends the first Saturday afternoon outside. He’s not doing anything, just sitting in the late autumn sun, enjoying the warmth. But he smiles again and Maggie cries, but this time happy tears.
A year after the doctors said Sam would surely be dead he’s playing baseball in the yard and Nathan quietly resigns himself to never knowing who sent the money. Maggie never asked, never wanted to know. She thinks he stole it and doesn’t care. They’re talking about getting a dog.
He still searches for stolen treasures across the globe, but now he does it in the name of a firm that puts life before money.
He almost catches Sophie in Prague, finds one of Parker’s caches in Maine, has a quiet beer with Eliot in Russia and gets a horribly ugly scarf for Christmas that just has to be from Hardison.
His son lives to turn ten, fifteen, twenty.
Nathan Ford comes close to breaking, but he never does. He never gets divorced, never quits his job. He never turns into a drunk, lost man.
Victor Dubenich never hires him. Leverage and Associates is never born and a hundred people in a hundred places never know justice, never know that, besides evil, there is also good in the world.
But mostly, the world’s greatest thieves never find each other.
But something amazing dies in his place.