Eliot Spencer didn’t rise with the dawn. Instead, the enthusiastic bird song just prior to the sun’s rising was what woke him. Nature – the best damn alarm clock there was.
Nathan Ford was a warm, sleepy lump next to him in the bed. Eliot kissed the older man chastely on the forehead. “Mornin’, Nate.”
“Mmmm. . . .” was the only response he got. Nate was not a morning person, not even after living on the ranch with Eliot these past five years.
Unlike Nate, Eliot didn’t have a problem with early hours. Of course, part of the reason why was that he didn’t sleep that much. Since their ‘retirement,’ he’d taken to getting a little more than an hour or two a night and whiled away the rest of the time in bed with his lover rather than trying to do something productive. Lying in the dark with Nathan surrounding him, listening to the other man’s heartbeat, was vastly better than any chore he could have thought of anyway.
With the ease of long habit, Eliot dressed and padded out of the room, carrying his footwear. It was hard to walk softly wearing cowboy boots and he didn’t want to rouse Nate more than he already had. Eliot waited until he got downstairs to don them. He stepped down hard to settle his feet in and, properly attired, he opened the door and headed outside.
The warm air caressed his face. It could get cold in the more rustic parts of California, but the lack of bite in the breeze told Eliot that spring was definitely on the way. The barn was an easy distance from the house and he traversed the space quickly. The horses were early risers, just like him.
To call their place a ranch was a stretch. They bred horses, but on a very small scale. They also weren’t a dude ranch; there wasn’t a tourist to be found. They had horses for one reason and one reason only: Eliot liked them and anything that Eliot liked well enough to actually admit it was something that Nate was determined that the former retrieval specialist would have.
With their past lives, money wasn’t an issue, although Eliot enjoyed having something hands-on that he could not only do, but do well. As a result, they had four horses of their own and boarded half a dozen others for a fee. Eliot worked with all of them, making sure they were well trained. Their ranch didn’t offer horseback riding for a fee, but he’d made arrangements with a couple of therapy groups to provide horses for patients to ride. Everyone who boarded their horses at the Leverage Ranch knew that was part of the deal. If they fussed about it, Eliot just not-so-gently suggested that they board their animals elsewhere.
When he reached the barn, Eliot pulled the door open and went in. “Mornin’ ladies and gents,” he called out softly.
The large bodies of the horses moved around eagerly in response to his voice, a few of them nickering softly in greeting as their hooves made muffled noises against the soft floor. Eliot rubbed the foreheads of his particular favorites as he walked to the feed bin. The next hour was spent in familiar work, feeding the horses, getting them out into the pasture and then mucking out the stalls. Eliot didn’t mind the chores; it felt good to use his body for honest, clean work, despite the smelly nature of some of it.
After the last stall was clean, Eliot washed up in the large laundry tub that served many functions in the barn. As usual, he hissed at how cold the water was; didn’t seem to matter what time of year it was, it was always chilly. Even that was okay, though, because it woke his mind up. Sometimes the morning’s routine could lull him into something of a haze.
After making sure the worst of the gunk was off his body and his boots, Eliot headed back to the house. The scent of coffee and bacon greeted him as he lightly trotted up the few stairs to the back porch. Breakfast was the one meal that Nate was allowed to cook unsupervised and he’d gotten real, real good at it.
“Hey, babe,” Eliot walked unerringly up to the stove and wrapped his arms around Nate from behind. The older man patted his hand, but didn’t turn from what he was doing.
“Hungry?” Nate asked. Eliot didn’t need to see his face to know that he was smiling.
“You know I am,” Eliot growled, pressing closer for a moment before letting go. “I need coffee.”
Nate snorted. “I guess I know where I rank. Below coffee.”
“Everything’s below coffee,” Eliot replied, smirking.
He filled his mug, sat at the table and a few moments later Nate slid a plate in front of him. “Smells good, Nate, thanks.”
Nate stole a quick kiss. “I had a great teacher.”
There was silence for a moment as both men dug into their meals. Something about the silence was off, though, and Eliot put his fork down quickly. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, exactly. . . .”
“Nate. . .” Eliot growled. He did not like the tone of his lover‘s voice. “Is everything okay with Parker?”
“She’s fine,” Nate was quick to assure him. “It’s just that she’s four centimeters dilated.”
Eliot frowned. “It’s a little early, ain’t it?”
“Not really,” Nate answered him. “But Alec did ask if we could come into town early, in case they have to head out to the hospital all of a sudden.”
No one had been surprised when Parker and Hardison had gotten together; they’d been fumbling their way toward each other almost from the first. Although Eliot had given Hardison the prerequisite ‘hurt her and I’ll break you’ speech, he approved of the match. Loving Hardison gave Parker one foot grounded in reality, while being with Parker gave Harrison a reason to grow up. They were good for each other.
What had surprised the other members of the team was how well the couple took to parenthood. Parker’s current pregnancy was her third. Before their first daughter, Lira, had been born, they’d all been worried about Parker’s ability to raise a child. She’d turned out to be a natural, though, as though lavishing the care on her daughter made up for her own childhood. Alec had been in a state of restrained panic the first year, but by the time the second daughter, Rupee, came along, he was a pro. He still had his moments, though, especially where the well-being of one of his girls was involved.
“Bet Hardison was the one who needed a clean diaper when he got the news, though,” Eliot smirked. He loved the man like a brother, but liked to yank his chain whenever possible.
“He sounded a little tense,” Nate admitted. “I told him we’d be down by suppertime.”
“I’ll call Owen,” Eliot said. Their neighbor was always willing to lend a hand whenever Eliot and Nate needed someone to cover their ranch. The man had seven kids that he needed to keep busy. They’d warned him this was coming up and he’d agreed to help them out.
Eliot adored his honorary nieces. Lira, the four year-old, was a little firecracker. She had her mother’s sense of adventure and her father’s intelligence. Eliot figured that she’d either grow up to be a test pilot or an even better thief than her mother. Maybe both. Rupee was only two and she was a lot shyer than her older sister. Eliot didn’t mind anyone knowing that he loved having her on his lap while he sang a lullaby. Rupee was a world class snuggler.
Parker’s first pregnancy had been one of the three reasons that the team had stopped running “leverage” jobs. None of them wanted a kid in the middle of that kind work, even if they were doing ‘good’ cons. Eliot had worried at first how Nate would feel about being around little kids again, but it was okay. It helped that Hardison and Parker’s first two children were girls, as was the one everyone was waiting to be born. Nate treated the girls like they were gold and Eliot loved listening to the older man telling them stories. Nate did the best voices and Eliot often found himself snickering at the girls’ begging Uncle Nate for 'just one more.'
“You think I’ve got time to put on a pot of chili?” Eliot asked. The drive into LA was well over an hour and that was if traffic was good.
“Relax, El, it’s only a little past 7 o’clock now,” Nate reassured him. “Sophie’s there and she doesn’t need to leave until suppertime; she’s got a client with a show opening tonight.”
After the team had officially broken up, Hardison and Parker had created anti-theft consulting business. Hardison got to design security systems and Parker had fun trying to break them. They were very good at it. Nate pitched in a little, mostly handling the business end of things.
Sophie, on the other hand, had gone in a different direction. She proved why clichés such as ‘those who can’t, teach’ are true. Despite being a truly horrendous actress herself, she had a knack of bringing out the ability in others. She was in demand as an acting coach on both coasts, but chose to headquarter in California so that she could be near the others.
“Oh, I bet Hardison’s shorts are really in a knot, then,” Eliot snickered. “If he thinks there’s a possibility that Sophie will have the girls all to herself for any length of time.”
“Sophie loves Lira and Rupee,” Nate quietly admonished him.
“Yeah, she loves them to death,” Eliot countered, starting to eat his breakfast again. “And she spoils them to death too.”
The last time Sophie’d babysat the girls by herself, she’d lavished jewelry on them for dress-up. Parker hadn’t been upset to realize that the gems were real, but Hardison had almost had a cow. Worse than that, however, was that Lira had talked her beloved aunt into letting them stay up late. As the babysitter for the next day, Eliot had been the one to deal with the fallout of overly tired children and he did not intend for that to happen again.
“We won’t need to leave until a couple of hours after lunch,” Nate said firmly. “They’ll be fine until then. Parker’s not showing any other signs of labor.”
Eliot snorted. “She didn’t with the first two, either.” He pondered a minute, considering the pros and the cons of leaving right away.
“If we do it my way, you’ll have a chance to make some cookies too,” Nate wheedled. “You know how the girls love those.”
“What the hell, Nate?” Eliot put down his utensils. “Why are you so determined to delay heading out?”
“Because it’s not necessary,” Nate either finished his own breakfast or at least eaten all he was going to. His chair made a scraping sound as he got ungracefully to his feet.
Eliot made a growl of frustration. He hated to be reminded of the second reason they’d retired the team. That last job had been a cluster fuck and a half. Nate had survived a nearly two story fall, but it had shattered his left hip and leg. With a lot of therapy and determination, Nate had learned to walk again, but would never have the ease he’d had before. Nate had never been an overly physical man, but now he was nearly crippled, making participating in a con far too dangerous. There was always the possibility, no matter how well a con was planned, that running was the only way out. Someone who couldn’t run was trapped and none of the others would allow Nate to risk himself that way.
Nate’s limp made Eliot feel guilty. After all, he’d been the one who’d pushed Nate out of the window in the first place. That the action had saved Nathan’s life was little comfort.
“That’s not the only reason,” Eliot prodded his lover. Nate could be slippery when he wanted to. He got up and went to the sink, where Nate was standing. He took the plate out of lax hands and set it on the counter. Eliot next put his hands on Nathan’s hips, hoping the touch would ground the older man and let him speak the truth. “Tell me.”
“You don’t like going into the city,” Nathan admitted in a hoarse voice. Eliot knew from its tone that he wasn’t the only one carrying around a passel of guilt from that last job. “It makes you feel helpless.”
It was true; Eliot was much happier when his friends made the trek out to the ranch to visit. The girls, in particular, loved being with the horses and Eliot always felt more comfortable in his own territory. Thanks to the system he and Nate had worked out, he knew exactly where everything was and how to navigate successfully.
Such control was necessary; Eliot’s blindness was the third reason that the team no longer did leverage jobs. That last job had fucked up his eyes even worse than it had Nate’s leg.
Frankly, his lack of sight seemed to bother his friends more than it did Eliot. He’d always had a kind of radar that let him sense movement around him; it’d contributed to why he was such a good fighter. Blind, Eliot was a match for many foes, but not all. To his regret, he no longer was in a prime condition to protect his teammates and so had bowed out. With Parker pregnant and Nate physically impaired too, the whole team had folded.
Despite how well Eliot had adapted to being blind, there were still things he’d give almost anything to be able to see. Nate’s expression when they made love. The color of his favorite horse. The faces of Parker and Hardison’s children. He tried not to linger on what he couldn’t have and concentrate instead on what he did have.
Eliot also tried hard not to let Nate’s over protectiveness drive him crazy.
“You’ll be there,” Eliot tilted his head. If he was sighted, his gaze would have met that of his lover. As it was, he couldn’t see Nathan’s expression, but hoped Nate would read his correctly. Namely, that Eliot didn't share his concern. “My own seeing eye Nate.”
Nate snorted. “Don’t you mean ol’ Gimpy?”
Eliot grinned. “You didn’t feel old or gimpy last night. Leastways, you didn’t limp when you were. . . .”
“All right,” Nate interrupted him. “I get the point. We’ll leave whenever you want to.”
“And Parker’s labor really hasn’t started yet?” Eliot asked. “She went kinda quick the first two times.”
“Alec promised he’d call if anything changes,” Nate told him. “Sophie’ll be there to watch the girls if they have to leave suddenly for the hospital.”
“Even she can’t spoil ‘em rotten in a couple of hours,” Eliot nodded, decision made. “We’ll stick to your original plan. That means I’ve got time to make two kinds of cookies.”
“Now who’s spoiling the girls?” The smile in Nathan’s voice was clear enough that even a blind man could see it.
“Lira likes chocolate chip and Rupee likes snickerdoodles,” Eliot defended himself. Saying the girls’ names made him think of something. “Did Parker and Hardison ever decide on a name for this next one? Will it be another money name or did Hardison finally win and get to pick a name from one of his geek obessions?”
Nathan moved away from Eliot, but slowly as if reluctant. Eliot could hear the other man stacking dishes as he spoke. “Well, I regret to inform you that your new niece will not be an Uhura, Leia or Arwen.”
“Another money name, then,” Eliot complained. “I hope it’s not Peso or Rubel or something cheesy like that.”
“Last I heard, they’d settled on Feria,” Nathan told him. “But you know Parker, could have changed by now.”
Oddly enough, it was Parker’s insistence on using money-related terms to name their children that had convinced Eliot, at least, that she was ready to be a parent. Money, after all, was Parker’s first true love and naming her kids after money showed just how attached to them she was.
“Feria,” Eliot said the word out loud, testing how it sounded. “It’s not terrible.”
“It’s fine, Uncle El,” Nathan teased him. “If it were up to you, I suppose you’d name the baby something like Sally Sue.”
“Something like that,” Eliot responded, but without any heat. Actually, if it were up to him, he’d probably choose something corny like Faith or Hope. After all, he was blind, but he had Nate and he had the others; Eliot counted himself a lucky man.
He felt the stir in the air that meant that Nate was moving to kiss him, so Eliot met the older man halfway. It was a relatively chaste kiss, but a warm one.
“I’ll do the dishes, you get started on your cooking,” Nate instructed.
“Yes, sir,” Eliot felt Nate’s lips turn up in a smile as they pressed against his own.
Eliot started to gather his supplies for mixing up the chili; it needed a long time to simmer, so he needed to get it on as soon as possible. They had a big kitchen, fitting for a horse ranch. The counter on the east side was designated for his use only, so everything was right where he left it.
“You sound happy,” Nate commented.
It was only then that Eliot realized that he was humming. “What’s not to be happy about? We’re gonna get a new niece and Hardison’s gonna be stuck changing dirty diapers again. Life is good.”
And it was. That last job? It’d fucked up the team but good. The team, that is, not the family. The family that working as a team had created remained strong.