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Steps

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I

You know there will be days

When you're so tired

That you can't take another step -

The night will have no stars,

And you'll think you've gone as far

As you will ever get .

You and me walk on, walk on, walk on,

'Cause you can't go back now.

*

The early morning sun shines down through the mist, bathing the old Victorian house in light the consistency and color of honey; split by the early-summer leaves into beams that dance across the backyard. The still air is filled only with the sounds of the father and son team working diligently in the backyard, measuring and sanding and staining around a neat stack of boards in the dewy grass. If anyone looks in through the slightly-overgrown jungle of rhododendron and honeysuckle, they would be treated to the unusual sight of Nate Ford in a t-shirt and jeans, spattered to his elbows in dried cherry finish and pine green paint.

“I’m telling you, Sam - once that thing’s done, you’re going to have the best tree house in all of Boston.”

The neat skeleton of that tree house rests halfway up an old oak tree, nestled safely in its thick branches, half-hidden in the new leaves. It, too, shines gold in the sunshine; its boards not yet withered and grayed by the elements. The ground beneath the tree is strewn with white curls of wood, snowflakes of sawdust scattered in the roots.

“Do you think we’ll finish it today, Dad?” The boy asks, setting his paintbrush down. His father looks at him with one eyebrow raised, skepticism – playful, but skepticism nonetheless – gleaming beneath the steely blue. Sam looks back at him, calmly, and Nate feels the skepticism fade. The only expressions in his son’s eyes are trust and love, so strong that his chest hurts. Then he blinks, and the tightness fades, just a bit.

“Maybe, if you don’t go running off every five minutes,” he finally teases, reaching out to tousle his son’s hair, leaving the brown silky locks sticking up like dandelion fluff. “Maybe.”

“But it’s summer!” Sam protests, laughing as he ducks beneath his dad’s hand, slapping it away with another giggle. “That’s what I’m supposed to do, remember? I can have plans all day every day as long as I stay out of trouble. Mom said!”

As if his words are a magic spell summoning her, the screen door creaks open. Nate pauses with his paintbrush up, turning around to look. Maggie Ford steps onto the porch, her eyes narrowed in playful suspicion as she buttons her blazer.

“I heard the word plans in there, Nate!” Nate opens his mouth to protest, half-pointing at Sam, his “hey, he said that!” dying unspoken on his tongue at the look Maggie give him. “Are you, perhaps, planning to get rid of the door?”

Nate sits for a second, paint dripping from the still-raised brush, mouth hanging open before he looks at his son, who returns the look with no small amount of amusement, arms crossed over his narrow chest. He glances back at his wife, almost cringing.

“…soon?” he ventures, voice hopeful.

“You’ve been saying that!” Maggie calls back with a laugh. “Like, since we bought the place. Remember?” Her words hang in the warm air, drifting, almost, in the morning calm.

It was, he reflects, the truth.

The house had been their dream home; a big elegant shingle-style Victorian, set far enough out in the suburbs that Sam could walk to school. The inside was worn, lived-in but certainly not run down, big enough that when Sam dragged friends home (which was often; the boy was popular), when Maggie threw her elbow-rubbing parties for the museums and galleries, when Nate came home from hours behind his desk, it never felt crowded, never felt cramped, never felt anything but…welcoming.

The big door in the foyer, however - opposite the front door - looked more like it belonged in a factory than in his family’s home; industrial hardware and steel clashed with the décor. It was, according to the real estate agent who had sold them the place three years ago now, the last vestige of the previous owner’s cold-war paranoia, with nothing behind it but their bedroom wall.

He kind-of liked it where it was, though. It added character.

“I’ll give you until Wednesday,” Maggie continues, hands on her hips, dragging him out of his reverie. “I want the hall all cleaned up for the party, remember?” Nate sighs, pushing his hair back from his forehead and leaving a streak of green in his fingers’ wake. He had almost successfully forgotten about the party, again, but that’s not a road he wants to go down right now. “You told Jimmy you’d have it gone by Christmas.”

“…it’s June, Maggie. I got plenty of time…”

“Yeah? You said that last August. I just want to see you explain it still being there to your dad. At the party.”

And then she’s gone, the screen-door slam echoing in her wake. Nate looks at his son conspiratorially, his face a parody of a grimace. “Gee, I don’t know…she sounds serious this time.”

The boy laughs, his voice ringing out over the birdsong of the new day. “Well, yeah! You’ve been saying you’d get rid of it for for-ev-er.”

“So…a day or two more won’t hurt matters, right?”

“Right!”

“I heard that!” Maggie calls back as she steps out on the porch again, briefcase and coffee in hand. “And I don’t care. Just remember: in time for the party.” She blows them both a kiss, and hurries toward the garage, steps light on the stones of the garden path.

Nate watches her until she was out of sight before he shakes his head. “Or…?” He mutters under his breath.

Sam elbows him in the ribs lightly, expression knowing. “Or you’re in the doghouse!” he offers with a grin. Nate returns it, picking up his discarded paintbrush.

“We’d have to get that built first too. And get the dog for it.” Nate smirks as Sam thinks about that for a moment before his eyes brighten with the realization.

“….you’re never going to be in trouble then. Ever.”

Nate grins and reaches out with the brush, painting a stripe of dark green down his son’s nose.

“Perfect!”

He barely manages to duck the retaliatory brush Sam throws at his head.

The rest of the morning is lost to the required paint fight.

*

Here comes the rain again,
Falling from the stars -
Drenched in my pain again,
Becoming who we are.

As my memory rests,
But never forgets what I lost -
Wake me up when September ends.

*

“Nate’s been hurt. Meet us at the hospital.”

Click.

*

Her hair was still wet, she hadn’t touched her makeup, and she knew for a fact that her Jimmy Choos did not match her exercise sweats (she would, after this, categorically deny that she had anything as shapeless and colorless and bland as those sweats). Somehow, Sophie Devereaux couldn’t be bothered to care, not even when she had to work her way into Massachusetts General Hospital between three police officers and a security guard, going on eye contact and subtle glances alone.

“What happened?” she asked the moment she saw Alec Hardison and Parker in the fourth floor hallway. Not even a waiting room – just the hall. Hardison sprawled on one of the uncomfortably firm couches like a teenager, one leg resting on the back, the other dangling over the armrest. Parker perched on the edge of one varicolored cushion, a bird about to take flight, though she occasionally leaned back against Hardison’s stomach like she was trying to reassure herself that he was still there.

Hardison, regardless, didn’t look up from his phone. If it had been anyone else, Sophie would have deeply considered convincing him to eat said phone, but in the genius hacker’s hands it could tell them more than any hospital staff ever would.

“I don’t know, I’m working on that.”

“We were playing Warcraft and the phone rang,” Parker said, as Eliot Spencer came storming down the hall, a knit cap pulled down over his flyaway hair. He arrived just in time to hear the young woman’s words, and he gave her a skeptical look. Parker ignored it. “Caller ID said it was Bonanno, so…”

“So I pushed the panic button,” Hardison’s eyes flickered in the glow from his screen. “See? Wouldn’t an Eliot-signal have been so much cooler?” The expression on his face belied the light-hearted words. “Avengers, assemble?”

“Yeah, well, a little warning would be nice next time; the place is crawling with cops.” Eliot peeled his hat off, shaking it in Hardison’s face, blocking his view of the phone. “I had to come down from the roof-”

Footsteps.

Sophie hissed a warning and Eliot’s sentence dissolved as Detective Captain Patrick Bonanno came into sight. The look on his face made Sophie’s stomach drop further than it had been, resettling somewhere near her ankles. Eliot pushed away from the wall in a smooth easy motion that put him between the policeman and his friends, shoulders squared defensively.

“What?” he demanded, before Bonnano had even said a word.

Bonnano just raised an eyebrow. Hardison glanced at him past his phone. “What, you call us all down here just to give us the Spock-look? Right. Spill.”

The detective shook his head, once. “I don’t think this is the best place to talk. Do you?”

Eliot looked at Sophie. Sophie looked back to Bonnano. He didn’t seem like he was planning a double-cross or anything, didn’t look like he was feeling guilty, but then….there was a large possibility that he wouldn’t feel guilty, unorthodox friendship or not. They were all criminals, and wanted criminals at that. But….she nodded back to the hitter. Parker grabbed Hardison’s shoulder, tugged him upright.

“C’mon. Let’s hear the man out.”

*

The door closed behind Alec Hardison with a loud click, and Bonanno turned to look at the four criminals he’d just led into the conference room. The last time he had seen any of them had been after the poker game that somehow evolved to include a drug bust and an attempted bombing.

And they somehow looked a lot less stressed that time.

He rubbed his forehead, trying to think of how to say anything. The words might have been easier to find if he could have focused on them one at a time, but that would have made them paranoid. Fearful. Better to do it all at once.

Right?

 “At approximately five-forty this morning, first responders were called to a warehouse fire down near the harbor,” he kept the report brusque and matter-of-fact. He knew who he was dealing with, knew he wasn’t talking to civilians, and he hoped they would return the respect. “I was in the area and heard the call on my radio.”

The only reason he had even gone to the scene was the address. The Organized Crime Division had that warehouse on file, tied to the Callaghan family but supposedly long abandoned. By the time he had reached the warehouse, it had been engulfed in flames, orange light flickering off the dark clouds overhead.

“The fire is being investigated, but…” Bonanno shrugged, crossing his arms over his chest. His shoulder still gave a twinge at the motion, and the pain moved him on. “There’s not much to investigate. It was four alarm within twenty minutes.”

It had been pure luck all around, even if he still wasn’t sure if it was good luck or bad luck. He’d hit the scene just as the first firemen pulled someone from the building and into the ring of flashing red and white lights: a bare figure, skin translucent in the darkness and smudged with purple and blue bruises; duct tape wrapped tight around his wrists, more tape over his mouth, his eyes…

His stomach twisted at the memory, and he rubbed his eyes again. Devereaux moved to sit on the edge of the table as elegantly as if she was wearing a designer dress instead of grey cotton. Parker shifted so she was sitting next to the older woman, arms wrapped around her torso. “I trust,” the con woman said calmly, “there is a point to this…little story?”

This was a risk; a step over the line into a grey area he’d never truly committed to, but these people – these genuinely likeable, genuinely good people – operated and lived within that grey area. He owed them for the Callaghan bust, the Adam Worth bust…hell, still owed them for taking down Kadjic and Culpepper.

There is a point to this story. I just don’t want to get to it.

“There was one survivor pulled from the building,” he continued, pacing along the table to look out the window over the Charles River, suddenly needing the motion. “Nathan Ford.”

If he gave himself time to think, he still saw the EMTs sawing the duct tape from Nate’s bloody wrists, carefully peeling the tape from his eyes; still felt that strange flutter of guilt in the back of his mind at the moment of recognition. The thought, it’s impossible to repay a dead man.

 The EMT had set aside the tape, moving on to the strip over Nate’s lips…

And he’d paused, then, eyes wide but his tone calm and professional.

“There’s something in his mouth…”

Bonanno shook his head abruptly, pacing back and wishing he could shake off the thoughts. He tried his best to ignore the looks the team was giving him. “Of course, as far as Massachusetts General and the rest of the guys know, it’s Tom Baker. His wallet had four other IDs in it.”

The wallet had been the only thing they found besides Nate before the building had been too dangerous to reenter. One of the firemen had handed it over, giving Bonanno a chance to misappropriate the IDs. He dug into his pocket now to pull them out, noting the way Eliot stiffened when he did. “Easy…” he said, and dropped the cards in Sophie’s outstretched hand. “You didn’t get those from me; I never saw them before in my life.”

Sophie just stared, wordlessly, as if she was sizing him up. Bonanno shifted from foot to foot, trying to ease his nerves and the ache in his arm, and her brown eyes narrowed. He’d learned enough about her to know what she was thinking: a man of Patrick Bonanno’s confidence shouldn’t display nerves, even when expecting a deluge of questions.

Questions which Parker and Hardison readily supplied; the first to regain their voices.

“What building-?”

“Can we see him?”

“Why didn’t you call earlier-?”

“Can we see him?”

“What happened? Is he alright?”

Can we see him?

Eliot looked at Sophie over the endless stream of words and demands, and Bonanno knew. The hitter and the grifter had both caught the same question.

Why didn’t you call earlier?

He dove for the opening Parker had left him desperately, pointing at the grill on the conference room’s far wall.

“Room 407. There’s a uniform on the door, so…”

The girl didn’t need any further invitation. She was on the back of the couch faster than he could blink, unscrewing the grill with nimble fingers. The metal grate clattered loudly when she dropped it, her sneakers disappearing before he’d even processed that she had climbed in. Hardison, most noticeably, looked almost crestfallen until a curtain of blonde hair cascaded from the hole in the wall. 

“You coming?”

The hacker didn’t even pause to think. He just let the thief pull him up with an ease surprising for her size. Bonanno watched them disappear, and when he lowered his gaze again, Eliot and Sophie looked positively grim. He swallowed, squared his shoulders, and continued.

“We don’t know what happened, exactly. Nate’s not seriously hurt; he was banged up quite a bit, but most, if not all, of his injuries are superficial.” Superficial, and suspicious. He moved between them to pick up the folder he’d left on the table earlier, trying to keep the thoughts in his head from showing on his face.

Nate had been beaten. He had been drugged – likely by someone who had no idea what the hell they were doing, from the torn tracks they left on his fingers. His wrists had been rubbed bloody, and there were teeth marks on his left forearm, red and angry, bitten nearly to the bone. The doctors so far had sounded confused on that one: the angle was wrong for it to have come from anyone else’s teeth. He’d done that to himself.

And the rest…

Bonanno cleared his throat, passing the folder to Spencer and viciously slamming the lid on the little procedural voice telling him how much trouble he’d be in if he got caught. “They’re treating him for smoke inhalation and we don’t know…you…” He faltered, his eyes flickering to Devereaux’s for a moment. Her eyes were practically slits, something dangerous flickering there, and he felt his own gaze skitter away before finally, more resolutely fixing on hers.

She apparently didn’t find it convincing.

“…why are you looking at me like that, Sophie?”

“It’s four,” Sophie said, her tone flat. Eliot nodded his agreement, hands clamped tight on the manila folder. “Why did it take you almost eleven hours to contact us?”

Bonanno looked away, grimacing; it probably did nothing to reassure Sophie in the least.

Spit it out.

“He hasn’t woken up yet.”

Sophie was on her feet in an instant, nearly lunging over Eliot’s arm when he put it up to bar her. Her voice rose to a surprising shrill tone. “You said he wasn’t seriously injured!”

Once again, Bonanno could not – would not – meet either of their eyes. The sound of Eliot rustling through the folder filled the room, murmuring low as he read and reread sections. The detective could practically see the wheels turning in the hitter’s head; imagine the puzzle pieces clicking into place.

“Patrick…” Sophie began anew, her voice flattening suddenly, too low to be natural, though none of it showed on her face. “There’s something else, isn’t there?”

“Your notes say he was found naked.” Eliot spoke before Bonano could say a word. His gravely voice was even harder than Sophie’s, filled with a coldness that almost hurt. “What aren’t you telling us? Was he…”

“What the hell...?” The EMT’s voice had lost some of its calm when he pulled a neatly-folded hundred dollar bill out of Nate’s mouth, dropped it on the stretcher next to his head. Bonanno stared at it for a second before his thoughts juxtaposed the money with the finger shaped bruises he could see smudged along Nate’s shoulders and ribs and just starting on the skin above his blanket-covered hips. His stomach had clenched with a sick fear he hadn’t wanted to voice.

 It was all in the folder now. The informal report held mentioned everything: the cash, the injections, the bite marks and bruises…and the blood, streaked a cruelly bright crimson on the pale skin of Nate’s thighs. 

His earlier fear resurfaced here, in the faces of Nate’s friends.

He drew in a breath, let it out silently. “We’re still waiting for…formal confirmation,” Bonnano said, still not even looking in their general direction, “but…I’m absolutely certain that Ford…that Nate…was raped.”

*

It felt like being punched, though Sophie managed to swallow her gasp, managed to internalize the sudden confused rage at the thought of anyone touching Nate. She drew in a shaky breath and looked away, feeling her fingers trembling; feeling like her skin was on too tight. Next to her, Eliot had gone perfectly still, something dangerous in his stance.

“You…” Bonanno rubbed his eyes, and Sophie drew her attention back to the detective with some effort. “We…” he drew in a deep breath, and shook his head. “I shouldn’t be doing this, but…”

Sophie let him think for a moment before she finally spoke. “But?” she prompted, dazed but still trying to pay attention past the thoughts now coursing through her.

Nate was raped. Nate’s unconscious, Nate was raped…

“But…I had the hospital...well, once they knew Nate was stable, I had them…” Bonanno kept grimacing, clearly uncomfortable with the conversation. “I asked the hospital to collect a rape kit.”

“…you’re not supposed to do that without his consent,” Eliot pointed out, voice a low growl. Bonanno didn’t flinch away from the hitter’s bright stare.

“I know. But this is…different. He’s unconscious, we don’t know when he’ll wake up, that’s…when you take his injuries into account, that’s implied consent. More than that, he’s a friend. He deserved…deserves better. And this way…” He shrugged. “I can let you know what I know.”

The way Bonanno said it, Sophie knew it was a struggle for him. He could be in a lot of trouble for doing this. Lose his position, lose his job…but he wasn’t taking the folder back, and he was still here.

“…Alright. Thank you,” Eliot said, finally. Grimly. “So…is that why the hospital’s got the cop gauntlet?”

“They don’t- we don’t officially know if it was just wrong-place wrong time, if he was a witness to something or a participant in something…” Bonanno pointed out, inexplicably reasonable. “Better safe than sorry.”

Her mind shied off of its current path, onto the how do we tell Alec and Parker path for all she tried to head it off at the pass. She didn’t want to even contemplate that.

I don’t want to think about anything but him waking up alright.

Bonanno rubbed his eyes again. “Right now, we’re calling it attempted homicide. The warehouse belonged to Harry Callaghan -well, the Callaghan family, anyway- so we think the fire might be drug related, but that still doesn’t explain Nate being there.”

The name Callaghan was familiar; he was the man they caught almost entirely by accident that night with Tara and Peggy and the bomb. It would be exactly like Nate to think he’d found something new and head there on his own, but something in that didn’t sit right in Sophie’s mind.

 Bonanno let out a weak laugh and continued. “If the fire was set to send a message or disrupt the Callaghan’s route, it’s shutting the barn door after the horses have gone. No one’s used that building for over a year and the Callaghan’s have been lying low since…well. Since you guys got to Harry.”

Eliot was still focused on the folder, but he looked at the detective over top of it, grimly. “And if it wasn’t set for those reasons?”

“Then someone had it out for Nate personally.”

Chapter Text

II

*

And if I had to crawl,

Well, you'd crawl too.

I stumble and I fall,

Carry me through,

The wonder of it all

Is you see me through

*

Bonanno left Sophie and Eliot alone in the conference room with the folder and a thousand questions. Questions like what do we do now? and how do we tell Parker and Hardison? None of them had easy answers.

“We could just…not tell them, for now?” Sophie offered, weakly, and Eliot cast a sour look at the folder. He hadn’t let her open it. Part of her was relieved, the other part bitter. All she had to go by this way was her own imagination, and usually that was worse.

“You don’t con your own crew.” He said, simply, and Sophie winced. That always came back to haunt her. Always.

“This isn’t a con,” she offered back, almost pleading. “It isn’t even lying. It’s just…omission? It’s just not telling the whole truth.”

The truth of the matter was simple: she didn’t even know how she was supposed to handle the whole truth. And if she didn’t even know how to handle it, how was she supposed to explain it? How was she supposed to explain it to Parker?

She said as much, and Eliot sighed, scrubbing his hand through his new-penny hair. The motion made it stick out with the residual static from his hat.

“Give her a little credit,” he advised, and Sophie snapped.

“Fine, then, you can explain it to her!” Eliot fell silent. Sophie huffed. “I thought so.”

The quiet after that was almost unbearable.

*

It was another ten minutes before there was any movement from the air vent. Eliot looked up, frowning, at the clattering noise that came from the hole moments before Hardison’s sneakers appeared, followed by the rest of his lanky frame.

The hacker was alone.

“Where’s Parker?”

Hardison clambered off the couch, brushing dust from his knees. It rose in tiny clouds to dance in the sunlight streaming through the window. “She’s still with Nate, man.” When he straightened up, his dark eyes were dull with worry. “He looks pretty banged up, an’ there must be somethin’ else wrong, ‘cuz he wasn’t movin’ worth jack.” He paused, looking at Eliot as if for confirmation. “They don’t usually keep you down like that ‘less it’s somethin’ hella serious, do they?”

“Hardison…” Eliot began.

“Alec…” Sophie spoke at the same time. Eliot waved for her to continue. “They’re not sedating him. He just…hasn’t woken up yet.”

Hardison frowned thoughtfully, and the longer he thought the deeper the frown grew. He finally looked back at Eliot, his eyes narrowing.

“What is it?”

“What is what?”

“There’s something you’re not telling me. I hate it when y’all do that, it’s messed up. It’s like y’all think I’m some little kid or dumb or somethin’. I am an adult, I deserve t’know when things are goin’ south.”

“Things aren’t going south,” Sophie said, as soothingly as she could manage, “we-”

“Mmm-mm,” Hardison interrupted, “nuh-uh, you are not gonna do that again. We are a team, we are gonna act like a team, even when Nate’s outta play, or we’re gonna lo-”

Nate was raped.” Eliot interrupted.

Sophie didn’t have the heart to point out that there was no confirmation yet. He had the folder. He had the years of experience in the truly nasty stuff. The hospital might not be absolutely certain, but Bonanno and Eliot sure were. She swallowed the whimper at the back of her throat, watching the youngest member of the team.

Hardison’s mouth snapped shut, and he blinked several times, running his long fingers over his mouth in a bemused, stunned sort of horror. He finally flopped down on the couch, shaking his head as he looked up at them. “I don’t even know what to do with that.” He finally said. “I just…I don’t.”

Eliot’s tight smile held no warmth or humor. “We’re not telling Parker.” He caught Sophie’s look and amended, “At least, not yet.”

Hell no,” Hardison agreed, and Sophie had to wonder, for just a moment, why his earlier protests about being kept out of the loop didn’t apply the thief. But then, she and Hardison and Eliot all had…close to normal social tendencies. Parker was still learning things that most of society learned as preteens. The hacker only stayed on the couch for a minute before he was up and pacing like a corralled horse. He paused at the window, playing with the blinds.

“Who?” He asked, almost calmly.

Eliot shrugged, scrubbing his hand through his hair. “They don’t know yet.”

“When’ll he wake up?”

“They don’t know that either.”

“So…basically, we know nothing.”

Sophie managed a weak smile, spreading her hands.

“Great. Just…great.”

The hacker stormed out of the room. Sophie rose to her feet, fully intending to chase him down and talk to him, but Eliot caught her wrist.

“He’ll be back. He just needs to think.” She looked at him, feeling like all the pain in her head was about to come spilling out her mouth, and he pulled her in close, wrapping his strong arms around her. “Trust me,” he said, softly, and it would have been reassuring if she couldn’t feel him shaking through the embrace.

He’s furious.

He was also right.

Hardison came back through the door within the hour, arms full of cords and boxes and a laptop with the MGH logo on the lid. Sophie looked up from her phone – Parker was texting her, constantly, and it was only Eliot’s insistence that she wait that kept her here in the conference room. She frowned when the young man dropped his armload of stuff, flopped onto the couch and booted up the laptop.

“Aren’t they going to need this room eventually?”

“Nah, see,” Hardison straightened up for a minute. He looked calmer, though there was still something uncharacteristically somber in his tone. “I took care of that first. As far as the hospital computers are concerned, this room’s for storage.” Sophie looked around at the spacious conference room with its flat screen TVs and plate glass windows, and raised her eyebrows. “No one questions computers anymore, so we’re good for a couple of days.” He stretched out on the couch, fingers flying over the pilfered laptop’s keyboard. “Now, I did a scan for Nate’s phone; far as I can tell the thing’s just gone.”

Not surprising, in a four-alarm fire. Sophie closed her eyes for a second, silently thankful that Nate hadn’t gone the way of his phone. Yet. Her mental voice added, snidely. He’s still not awake.

Shut up.

“If I were just some Joe on the street, this would be a problem. Lucky for us, I ain’t.” He waved a hand at the laptop. “I’m downloading Nate’s phone records now. Hopefully…”

“Hopefully they’ll tell us what he was doing there.” Eliot moved to sit on the back of the couch, watching Hardison type over his shoulder. Sophie eyed the two men for a moment before sighing and pulling one of the chairs out to sit down.

“You…you don’t think he was a bystander, then?”

“I don’t care what Bonanno’s cop buddies think or say. Rape, sexual assault-” Hardison flinched noticeably at the words. “It’s about power more than it is about…pleasure or whatever. Some random shmuck shows up at your drug deal, you shoot him in the head, put him down quick. You don’t…” Eliot grimaced and spoke fast. “You don’t usually fuck around with him first.”

This time, Sophie winced at the phrasing, heart aching at the idea of her friend and lover being brutalized like that. Eliot shot her an apologetic look. It didn’t help.

The nervous tapping on the keyboard keys slowed, abruptly. “You think he was lured there?” Hardison asked, quietly. Eliot nodded.

“I do.”

“But no one we’ve take down…that’s not a typical M.O. or- there we go!” He tapped at the keyboard. “A’ight, let’s see what we’ve got goin’ on here…Eliot, me, Eliot, Soph’, Parker, me…huh.” He paused, forehead creased in consternation. “When did Maggie get to town, and why didn’t Nate tell us? We coulda all gone for brunch or something.” The comment seemed weak, but at least it was normal Hardison.

Sophie frowned, regardless. “I talked to her yesterday.”

“Apparently, so did Nate.” Hardison turned the screen so Sophie could see. There was a text message readout on the screen: In town for the afternoon. Need to talk shop. Dinner at Joe’s, 6:00?

“I was talking to her at six.” Sophie said, staring at the words. “She was in Milan.”

Hardison’s smirk at her words was almost feral. Parker would have been proud of that smirk. “So much for covering tracks.”

“But why does it show Maggie’s name? That’s not her number…” Eliot had his phone out and was comparing his phone book to the numbers on Hardison’s screen. Hardison just shrugged.

“Someone spoofed the caller ID codes. I mean, c’mon. I do it all the time…” Hardison scowled at the phone. “It’s not supposed to be used against us, that’s just…that, that…that wounds me, man. It’s insulting.”

“Yeah, well, grab your coat.” Eliot was on his feet, shrugging into his jacket even as he spoke. “We’re going to go see about repaying that insult with some injury.”

“Seriously?” Hardison closed the laptop, tucking it under the couch. Eliot threw his coat to him as he was standing.

“Well. At least see what we can find out.”

*

“You’re handling this better than I ever would.”

Sophie looked up from the drink machine in the Eat Street Café to see Bonanno standing there, offering her a Styrofoam cup. She took it gratefully, digging a teabag out of her pocketbook.

“Am I?” she asked, dropping the tea bag into the cup and starting the hot water. She thought for a second of Nate upstairs, wired and bandaged and deathly still – and had to flinch away from the wordless shriek she could feel rising from her toes. It wouldn’t help them at all. Not that what she was doing felt like helping.

She’d already texted Maggie, hoping to catch the other woman awake. There were far too many places named “Joe’s” in this town. Now she just had to wait for Nate’s ex to get back to them.

“I expect,” she said to Bonanno’s nod, her voice brittle as she sank into a chair, “It’s because I’ve not fully come to terms with what ‘this’ is.”

The honesty stung a little as the words left her mouth, but it hurt far less than allowing that scream loose would. “I’m…focusing. Compartmentalizing?” Bonanno nodded again, his gaze understanding, and she continued. “We need to find the people responsible, and that’s all I can think about, because if I try to think about him…” Her fingers tightened on her cup. “I feel like I’m opening the door to invite a hurricane in for tea.”

She’d have time for that whirlwind later, once Nate woke.

And if he doesn’t wake up, it’s pointless anyway.

The thought shocked the breath from her for a moment, and she sat still, staring at the cell phone. It buzzed, the screen lighting up, and she dove for it – half hoping it’d be from the young woman glued to Nate’s bedside, reporting a change.

“You’re looking for Josephine’s on Dartmouth.” The address swam in Sophie’s eyes in wake of the disappointment. “Trying to get Nate to actually show you the classier side of Boston?” When she looked up from the screen, Bonanno stood.

“I’ll…let you deal with that.” The detective captain said, offering her another quick, calm smile before he turned on his heel and strode back out the door. She forwarded the text to Hardison, and drew in a slow breath before hitting reply.

I wish that were the case.” She typed reluctantly, “Maggie, Nate’s in the hospital.

*

Sophie called Maggie for them, texted Hardison ten minutes later with the address of the only Joe’s she and Nate had ever frequented. The hacker and the hitter stood at the bottom of the steps for a moment, staring up at the elegantly carved glass doors that read Josephine’s.

“…I’m gonna guess they don’t serve burgers an’ fries here,” Hardison muttered, watching the wait staff bustling back and forth inside. They were all clad in identical black and white, the monkey suits him and Parker and Eliot had had to wear so many times for cons.

“So they’ve got good taste,” Eliot shrugged, his hands tucked in his pockets. “Zagat gave ‘em a solid 23 for the food…”

One of the servers looked out the window at them and barely hid a look of contempt. “Oh, now, rude.”

“Of course, they also got a ten for the service.”

Hardison slipped his cell back in his pocket, and glared at Eliot’s chuckle. “Hey, man, how’re we playing this?”

Eliot grinned – a fierce, unfriendly thing – and dug into his pockets, tossing something to Hardison, who barely caught it. It was a police badge, heavy enough to be real. The other man held one that was identical, and a wad of bills.

“Falsehood and bribery. Whichever seems more appropriate.”

It was something of a relief to do something that felt as normal as storming into a still-closed restaurant. The waiters and waitresses seemed vaguely horrified at someone bursting in during set-up time, though if they had honestly wanted to keep people out, they should have kept the front doors locked.

They just wanted something to fuss about.

Eliot prowled over to the maître d’ as if he owned the place. The maître d’ – his nametag said Jeffrey; he was a tall, gangly fellow who certainly didn’t look as if he was old enough to wear the sneer that currently graced his lips, much less taste anything on the wine list he held – looked Eliot up and down and dismissed him with a sniff that offended Hardison on his teammate’s behalf.

The badges, however, wiped the disdain from his face.

Hardison schooled his face into a hard expression. “Jeffrey, I’m Detective Randall, this is Detective Monroe, we’re from the Boston P.D, an’ we’d like you to answer a few questions.”

The young man went almost as pale as a sheet. “Um, I…it’s j-just Jeff. We’re closed, no one’s supposed to be in here except staff, I don’t know where the manager is but…” He cast a helpless look over his shoulder. “…you should really talk to the manager.”

“Or,” Eliot said, poking a finger in the young man’s skinny chest, hard enough that Hardison knew from past experience it would probably bruise, “You can help us out and we’ll be out of your hair and you won’t have t’explain to your manager why the whole place is closed for hours, Jeff.” He smiled, sweet on the surface, and the young man gulped.

“Wh-what do you need to know?”

“Who was working front of house around 6:00 last night?”

Jeff flinched, swallowing visibly again. “I was.”

“Well, that certainly makes things easier,” Eliot said, and waved a hand at Hardison. Hardison pulled his cell out, flipped it to a picture of Nate and passed it off to the hitter. “You see this man?”

Hardison watched nervously as the maître d’ took the cell phone. He only looked at the photo for a second before he was shoving it back at Eliot. “Yes.” He didn’t sound happy. “Him and that jerk of a boss of his.”

Eliot’s back straightened. It made him look like a hunting dog, somehow, focused on the young man. Like a laser, locked onto a target, sharp and attentive. “Boss?”

“Yeah, some…old guy. Pushy. Sent his meal back two or three times…everything was wrong, you know? That sort of thing. That dude, he was…he was fine. Friendly enough, polite enough…Left for awhile an’ came back and his boss was still here.” Jeff frowned, eyes narrowing below the fringe of his bangs. “What’s this about? Last I checked, taking three hours to eat and being rude wasn’t a crime…”

“National security,” Hardison jumped to the go-to answer these days, almost chuckling at the expressions that flickered across Jeff’s face in rapid succession. “There’s good money in financing all sorts of horrible, horrible things these days. Could you show us where they sat?”

A fifty, a pat on the back and a you’ve been a big help sent Jeff on his way, with Eliot reassuring him that if they needed anything more they knew where to find him. They were left in a small alcove with a table big enough to seat six people. It wasn’t truly set now, just a white tablecloth and candlesticks that Hardison was willing to bet cost more Jeff was paid in a month.

“What’re we looking for?” He asked. Eliot held up a finger, shushing him for a moment as he circled the table, eyes on the ceiling and walls.

“It’s a good spot,” the hitter finally said, reluctantly, as if giving their mystery man even that much credit cost him something. “No security cameras, no windows, and you’ve got a prime view of most of the dining room…”

“Yeah?” Hardison looked back to the table, layering Eliot’s observations into his mental profile of the guy besides pushy jerk. “So…what’re you thinking?”

“I think…” Eliot kept pacing the table, but finally stopped at the furthest chair, the one back in the alcove proper, walls on three sides. “I think our guy sat here. Nate,” he waved at the chair exactly opposite it. “Nate was there.”

Anyone who sat there would have had their back to the whole dining room. Strange as it seemed, there was something horribly vulnerable about that concept, and Hardison – who liked his nice secure places, liked his enclosed vans and his back to things as long as those things were not the bottoms of coffins – shivered.

Mind games.

“Check the seat.”

Hardison obeyed, ducking down to examine the antique brocaded chair as Eliot did the same on his side of the table. There was nothing on the seat itself, or under it, but as he ran his hand over the smooth, cherry stained wood of the armrest, his fingers snagged on something metallic. When he drew his hand out, Nate’s St. Brigit medallion came with it. It flashed in the low light as he held it up.

“Eliot…”

“Yeah.” There came the sound of tearing tape, and Eliot straightened up, an 8x10, torn and taped manila envelope clutched tight in his hand. “You know, sometimes, I hate being right.”

“What’s that?”

“Photos.”

“And you know that because….?”

“It’s a..” Eliot sighed and said the inevitable, “very distinctive weight.”

There was a moment of silence while Hardison weighed the small gold charm in his hand, warming with his body heat. When he looked back up, Eliot was still staring at the envelope.

“Aren’t you going to open it?”

“Not here, no. I-”

“Do you need any help with anything?” Hardison jumped at the unexpected voice, clapping one hand over his heart, his breath catching in his throat for half a second. Eliot snorted as the realization sank in. Jeffry was back, and apparently puppy-dog-eager to make up for his earlier surliness.

“No, I think…” Eliot looked down at the pictures for a second, then cocked his head. “Actually, yeah. Yeah, I…you said that this man,” he snapped his fingers, and Hardison flashed Nate’s picture at the young maître d’ again. “You said he left…?”

Jeffrey nodded, eagerly. Hardison swallowed half a dozen comments that came to mind about puppies. “Yeah, before the food arrived. Which was weird.”

“Ahuh.” Eliot met Hardison’s eyes, pulling out a notebook – one that looked an awful lot like the one that had been and should be in that evidence folder Bonanno had swiped for them back at the hospital – and pretending to scribble furiously in it. Hardison sidled a step closer so he could read the words.

Break the case scam?

Hardison nodded, once.

Sure, why not.

“And…what time did he come back? Did anything seem…odd?”

“He was back by 9:10, I remember because his boss,” Jeffry stared at the notebook as Eliot continued scribbling. Half of it was gibberish, random lines and squiggles. The rest, Eliot’s impressions: Nate went willingly. He left and came back. Why? “His boss pitched a fit about him being late. Like they were on a schedule or something.” Jeff fell silent, thinking. “And he’d changed. My manager didn’t even want me to let him back in. Said he was underdressed.”

“Underdressed?”

“Yeah. Jeans and a t-shirt, hoodie. Sneakers. He only got back in ‘cuz that old guy nearly threw a temper tantrum. I thought he was going to have a heart attack.”

Jeans and a t-shirt…all easy to move in. The sorts of things Nate would wear under normal circumstances. Wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, except at a place like this. Eliot held up a finger behind the notebook.

One more second.

“Alright, man, you’ve been a big help, I just have one more question for you…our guy, was he acting weird or anything?”

Jeffry thought about the question for so long that Hardison thought Eliot was likely to stare holes in the middle of his forehead. “Tense?” he finally said, shrugging as he did. “But then, I’d be tense with a guy like that, too.” He stopped again. “And…when they left, he was acting almost…drunk. Or sick. Or something. They had to help him out.”

The notebook closed with a swish of papers and a snap louder than Hardison thought it was possible to make with soft cardboard. Eliot’s grin was so sharp he could have cut diamond with it.

“That’s it!”

“What’s it?”

“You just broke this case wide open!” Hardison said, in lieu of actually answering the question, enthusiasm and bluster layered over the bull. “You’re a credit to Josephine’s; wouldn’t be surprised if you get an honorary medal or somethin’ for this…”

It was eerily similar to the brush-off they’d given that cop at Bonanno’s, but it worked. Jeff let them go, practically star-struck as Hardison laid it on thick. Eliot grabbed his arm and pulled him to the side as soon as they were out of the building.

“Get in the car. You’re going back to the hospital.”

*

The hospital room was mostly dark, though the monitors and machines cast an unearthly blue glow on Nate, stretched on the bed. Sophie sat in the chair next to him, her feet tucked beneath her, watching the slow, shallow rise and fall of the blanketed figure’s chest. Parker lay curled on the other bed, sleeping fitfully, her hair over her face.

I have plans. Big plans.

Nate’s words floated back to Sophie as if in mockery: mockery of Nate, for speaking them in the first place; mockery of her, for believing them.

“Mrs. Baker?” The doctor’s voice had been soft, calm, but it failed to soothe as Sophie looked up at her, the worry on her face as real as the name was not.

“Yes?”

The doctor was a matronly woman with a shock of silver hair and a grandmotherly air, despite the strength in her stance. She smiled, and it was the perfect mix of bracing and comforting. “I wanted to talk to you about your husband’s…condition.”

“Doctor Keen, right?” The doctor nodded, and Sophie tried not to look pleading. “Has anything changed?” she asked, hopefully - she kept holding on to the thought that any moment now Nate would open his eyes and everything would be alright, but…it had been almost fourteen hours. He hadn’t so much as stirred. And even once he did wake, nothing was going to be instantly better.

“No, ma’am,” Doctor Keen sat down on the second bed in the room, sighing. “And that’s part of why we need to talk.” She leaned forward, concern in her green eyes. “Your husband…well. Are you familiar with the term ‘psychosomatic’?”

Sophie knew what she meant, but Mrs. Baker wasn’t always the quickest to speak so she paused as if thinking before she replied, “It means your symptoms are all in your head.”

“That’s a crude definition, but it’s essentially correct.” Dr. Keen looked sympathetic. “We’ve run test after test. We’ve checked everything. Your husband was drugged, yes, but…there is nothing drastically wrong, Mrs. Baker. He should be awake by now.”

“…so why isn’t he?”

“We don’t know.”

They’d agreed before Hardison and Eliot left that one of them needed to stay with Nate. Sure, there was Bonanno’s promised uniform on the door, but the Boston police department could be bought and sold like any other organization. Until they found out who had done this, there would be a team member here at all times.

And…besides. You’re supposed to talk to coma patients, aren’t you?

“Nate,” Sophie’s voice was quiet in the stillness, but she still lowered it so as not to wake Parker, who dozed on. “Nate.”

Nate didn’t move. He looked smaller like this, so still; nothing flickering on his face: no thoughts, no schemes flashing in his storm-blue stare – just dark bruises covering what skin she could see past the oxygen mask. All the times she had ever wished for Nate to just shut up and listen paraded through her mind, and she sighed into her fourth Styrofoam mug of tea.

I take it all back.

“Nate, we don’t know what happened to you…”

Saying it out loud felt like a betrayal of sorts. They were usually used to being in control of the situation in one way or another; the puppet-masters instead of the puppets. This…this was not in control, by any stretch of the imagination.

“And…it would really help if you could…wake up and tell us?”

Silence met her ears, filled only with the regular beeping and hissing of half a dozen machines. Sophie sighed, running her hand through her still-tangled hair. She must look like a fright, and…she couldn’t be entirely bothered to worry about it.

 All she could worry about was the barely breathing man in the bed.

“Nate, sweetheart…please? We need you.”

I need you.

Sophie sat and watched, listening to the boys bickering in the earbuds. It was a long time before Parker stirred; the glow from the monitors casting her pale skin in shades of ice. Her eyes blinked open slowly, and when they focused on Sophie they cleared instantly.

“Did he wake up is he okay can we go hom-oh.” Parker had seen the figure on the bed, and her slim shoulders slumped. Sophie reached out and patted her knee. Parker didn’t move. She looked truly dejected. “No. No, he didn’t, no he isn’t, and no, we can’t.” She flopped back sideways, pillowing her head on her arm. Sophie bit her lip, and picked up her purse. She couldn’t sit here any longer. Maybe there was something she could do anyway but here.

“Stay here,” she said softly, though she almost felt the instruction was unnecessary. “Hardison will be back soon. I’ll be back too.” She stood there until Parker looked up at her, and gave her a small smile. “Text me if anything changes.”

Parker nodded, and Sophie walked out the door.

I can hope, anyways.

*

Nate’s old loft above McRory’s Place was still empty – unsurprising, since Hardison held the lease. It was doubtful the young man would let anyone have that condo until he was over his sulk that they’d had to tear down HQ again and he hadn’t even got to blow anything up this time - or keep the batcave.

He doubted that Hardison realized Nate had been staying there on and off since they decided to lay low after the showdown the dam. It fit with the older man’s philosophy, anyway; hiding in plain sight. It was almost exactly like his end-of-con taunting, only without an audience.

But now the apartment – despite its lonely emptiness - offered a place where he could work without Hardison’s nervous jabbering, or the conspicuous lack-of-Parker. Eliot sat cross-legged on the counter and opened the envelope, pulling out its contents.

The envelope held a pile of photographs, taken with a professional grade camera: Nate being escorted from the restaurant, dazed confusion evident in his glassy stare. Nate, sprawled on his stomach on a metal table, his wrists clearly tied over the edge, his clothes torn and dirty.

In some, a tall, broad-shouldered man’s thick fingers pressed against his shoulder blades, splayed possessively over his back, pinning him down. In others, it was a different man, stocky and short, hands clamped on Nate’s thighs. There were few where he was left alone. None of the photos showed either man’s face, but they grew consecutively worse. He had less and less clothing in place in each one, more and more bruises tracing up his sides, visible even in photographs. The last photo lay facedown under the others. He couldn’t even look at it for more than a second before he’d felt his blood pressure rising.

Eliot stared at the pictures spread out on the counter, and tried not to think about how satisfying it would be to hit the streets and pick half a dozen fights.

That won’t help Nate. That won’t help us.

He wasn’t surprised when the floor above him creaked; wasn’t surprised when he heard feet on the spiral staircase down. He recognized the footsteps – size eight sneakers with a light, leggy step. It wasn’t her normal gait (high heels with the tight pace required by a pencil skirt), but Sophie still had a distinctive walk.

Somehow, he wasn’t surprised that she was already here.

“Oh, I see you’ve got photos too,” Sophie’s musical voice held a tired tone; it was out of place, made the beautiful woman sound worn around the edges. She sat down on one of the high chairs, leaned over and peered at the fanned-out pictures before he could sweep them out of sight.

“…oh.” she said again as she slumped until her forehead pressed to his knee. 

Eliot reached around her to slide the incriminating photos into a neat pile before he shoved them back into the envelope and clawed one hand through his hair, resting the other – gently – on Sophie’s shoulder.

“I showed you mine,” he said, grimly. “Now you show me yours.”

Sophie let out a noise that could have been a laugh, could have been a sob. He waited, the yin-yan of his own patience versus impatience warring within him, and finally she straightened up. She began to place the photos down in neat rows. “I found these under his…the…” She paused, thought for a moment, and then nodded, decisively. “His bed.”

Eliot glowered at them. Like the others, they all held a single main subject. This time, that subject was Parker.  Parker, at the door to her safehouse-slash-apartment. Parker, tugging Hardison down the street by his hand towards what looked like the pet store…

And, the worst, Parker, sleeping curled like a cat on top of the blankets on what was definitely her bed, Bunny tucked under her arm. She looked so much like a child in the last one that Eliot almost thought that finding that fight might be a good idea, before he punched a hole in the wall.

“Well.” Sophie broke the awkward silence. “I think we found out why he was there, anyway.”

*


If I could make these moments endless
If I could stop the winds of change
If we just keep our eyes wide open
Then everything would stay the same…

*

Nate still hasn’t gotten around to the door by Tuesday night. He has, however, finished Sam’s tree house, fixed the basement stairs, painted the garage door and fought with the bathtub’s faucet until he’d snapped something off and had to call the plumber to stop the geyser of water before it created a river down the stairs.

He only moderately succeeded in the last one, but the carpet would survive.

“You know,” he tells Maggie after dinner, after Sam has disappeared outside to find the nightly neighborhood soccer game, “I live in the hope that one of these stay-at-home vacations, I will actually relax and not have to play Tim the Toolman.”

Maggie laughs tossing her golden hair back over her shoulder as she started to clear the dishes. “I have no idea where you got that idea…”

“Mhm.” Nate stands, crossing the kitchen to pull Maggie into a loose hug, arms snug around her waist, nose buried in her hair. “No idea, hmm? Well, I can tell you a few other ideas, since you didn’t like that one…”

“Nate!” Maggie laughs again, lightly, easily extricating herself from the circle of his arms to dump the dishes onto the dishwasher’s top rack in a messy pile. He hrmphs under his breath and starts organizing them so they would actually get washed, trying to ignore the strangely strong pang of loss. “I have a meeting tonight, remember?”

“…ah, yes, more of the Maggie Collins-Ford Benefit Gala planning?” He raises his eyebrows at her when she starts trying to put the dishwasher soap in the wrong slot, relieving her of the bottle and dumping it in correctly. “A little more flustered than you’d like to let on?”

“I’m not flustered,” Maggie protests, “there’s just a lot to do, and…” The doorbell saves her from explaining whatever she’d been about to say. “I have to get that.” She hurries off, leaving him with the rest of the messy kitchen. He shakes his head, and finishes the dishwasher before helping himself to a beer and moseying out to the living room, where he can eavesdrop on Maggie’s meeting without being available for comment.

The next half-hour is lost to strangely loud discussions about decorations and flowers and seating arrangements. He listens for maybe five seconds before online Sudoku and a really loud CD suddenly seem like a better alternative. Certainly much better than answering emails from James Sterling about figuring out his expense account, which is what he eventually finds himself doing.

The nicest thing about the desk job is that I am not your calculator anymore, Jimmy. There should be one on your cell phone. By the way, Maggie’s expecting you Saturday. Don’t make me come find you.

“Ooh, that’s kinda mean. I like it.”

The voice is right at his elbow.

Nate jumps, spilling beer all over his keyboard. There's a girl there – young woman, really – perched on the ottoman, reading the screen over his shoulder. She turns a brilliant smile on him when he stares, brushing a curtain of blonde hair out of her face and pointing at the computer helpfully.

“You didn’t hit send yet.”

“Who are you and what are you doing here?”

The girl doesn’t answer either question. She just leans past him, takes the mouse from his hand and clicks the envelope icon, sending the email before beaming at him again. “There! Now you can check that off your to-do list.” She gestures in the air as if doing just that. “Email Sterling – check! What’s next?”

“No, seriously. Who are you?”

The young woman shrugs her bony shoulders. “That’s for me to know and you to find out?” She offers. Nate stands, grabbing a wad of Kleenexes to mop up the worst of the beer before he wads them into a ball.

Maybe she's part of the mob of party planners Maggie'sdealing with…?

“Sounds like the flower-power soiree is wrapping up, might want to get out there before your bosses leave…” He tosses the Kleenexes towards the trashcan and, unlike any time he plays anything with Sam, they go right in.

 The girl cheers.

“Nothing but net – three points!”

“Out!”

The girl sinks back onto the ottoman, cross-legged and cross-armed, like a slim blonde Buddha. “No.”

Nate cards his hand through his hair, and heads for the kitchen to find paper towels. The girl waits a second before following on his heels.

“Nice house y’got here,” she comments, eyes flitting from paintings to replica statues to the framed crayon drawing of Sam and Maggie and him, all in their respective places of honor. Her gaze lingers the longest on Sam’s drawing, and Nate lets the idle notion that she was the world’s worst cat burglar fall away.

“Thank you, we like it…” The carpet squelches underfoot as he moves past the stairs to get in the kitchen, and he winces. “…most of the time.”

“Don’t tell me, let me guess – you tried to play plumber?”

“Shut up,” he grumbles back, but he doesn’t really need to, because the girl had found Sam’s cereal stash.

“OOoooh, Cap’n Crunch!” The top of the box is gone before he so much as waves his permission, utterly bemused by this peculiar home invader. “I didn’t even know they made them in teeny tiny boxes, these are so cute…”

He’s just found the roll of paper towels when the idea hit him and he turns, slightly horrified. “Are you…you’re not…you’re not Dad’s new girlfriend, are you?” It's happened before, Jimmy and his trophy girlfriends, ten, twenty, forty years younger than him. As much as he loved the old crank, some things…

The girl jams another handful of cereal into her mouth, giving him a highly disgusted look. “What? Jimmy? No. Ew. Ew, ew, ew.”

Nate just watches her, head tilted just slightly to the side, feeling like he’s stepped into some strange Twilight Zone.

“…so how do you know Jimmy, then?”

The girl swallows the cereal in her mouth, looking almost pained when she discards the rest of the box on the counter. “I gotta go.” She gives the abandoned box an almost-loving pat before she's gone, the screen door slamming behind her.

Only spilled beer in the living room and scattered cereal in the kitchen prove she even existed. Nate stares after her for a moment, a streak of gold disappearing through the bushes of the backyard, before he shakes his head and goes to retrieve the broom.

Chapter Text

III

So this is where you are
And this is where I am
Somewhere between
Unsure and a hundred

It’s hard I must confess
I’m banking on the rest to clear away
‘Cause we have spoken everything
Everything short of I love you

*

Eliot slept sprawled out on the conference room couch, his hair spread around his head like the halo of a recalcitrant angel.  Sophie stood in the doorway and shook her head before shucking off the white doctor’s coat she’d nicked as extra camouflage. It was the beginning of their third day at the hospital. So far, no one had questioned their presence in the fourth-floor conference room.

They finally had a chance to try out Hardison’s HQ-In-A-Box, though. In was, in fact, a literal box: a huge Tupperware thing that housed computer monitors and towers (now all scanning the local police dispatch sites and channels, news stations and web-sites, keeping an eye out for anything blatantly amiss), the bare-bones of his costume equipment (badge makers and a sewing kit and a tiny color printer), key-readers, button cams, listening devices, anything they might need to keep on top of everything happening at MGH.

So far, it was a success.

Which was good, because it looked like they might be stuck there for the duration.

Parker hadn’t left Nate’s side for more than the two minutes it took her to slip into the black Boston P.D. uniform Hardison had found for her. She had a badge now and everything, making her out to be Leela Jameson of…some precinct off in the boondocks; far enough away that no one would call her on it. Bonanno had brought the badge by, told them that Parker could stay indefinitely now and subsequently disappeared again, before any questions could be raised.

They still hadn’t mentioned the pictures to her – or the exact nature of Nate’s injuries. Whenever Sophie thought they should tell her, before it was too late, she looked to see Parker still staring at their friend like a little kid waiting for their lost puppy to come bouncing up the front walk.

Sophie stepped lightly across the conference room, carefully making her way through two days worth of takeout containers to the pile of files on the furthest table. The manila envelope the boys had found at Joe’s was rumpled now, the top flap torn. It rustled as she pulled the mixed stack of pictures out and spread them on the floor.

The stark images of Nate stripped - vulnerable and injured, florescent light dancing pale in the spaces between his ribs - still made her throat clench funny, but this time she managed to leaf through them without Eliot pulling them away with his attempts at chivalry.

This time, she would be able to look them over for anything they might have missed.

She laid the pictures out in order, like a jigsaw puzzle, her eyes flickering from one to the next, noting anything that could be useful. There had been four men on the scene besides Nate – undoubtedly the other men at the table that night – though even in the worst of the pictures, only two of them ever touched Nate. She tried to avoid those as best she could, but it was hard to balance looking for clues with trying to forget this ever happened.

None of the attacker’s faces ever appeared in the pictures, she realized reluctantly – just their builds and suits and hair and the mannerisms that could be caught in a camera’s lenses. Trying to focus on Nate didn’t make the situation much better. It just made her wish she’d been there, perhaps as Kroy. She’d have given the bloody bastards a run for their money…

And would Parker have paid the price?

That was certainly the implication the two sets of photographs made. She set aside the taunting images, and leafed through the smaller stack of pictures she’d found beneath Nate’s bed.

Why did they let you go to leave these? Why did you go back instead of contacting us?

There was nothing that seemed helpful in any of those photographs either. Just the frighteningly intimate implication that the thief had been watched for at least two weeks; stalked and followed, hunted even to her own home. Even when she thought she was safe. The grifter stared at the picture of Hardison and Parker on the sidewalk, noted the grin on Hardison’s face, the exuberance in Parker’s bearing. They were surrounded by a crowd – a group of girls in high school uniforms, a young dog-walker with at least three puppies, an old man in a purple suit, walking almost out of the frame – and still the picture held an air of cozy warmth. Like the hacker and the thief were the only people on that street.

They even sullied that.

Sophie let out an uncharacteristic growl and shoved the pictures back into the envelope. They snagged on something half-way in, something that crumpled at the edge of the glossies and kept them from sliding further.

There was something still in the envelope.

Sophie tipped it, gave it a tiny shake, and a final photo fell free. It was printed on different paper this time – not the glossy photostock, but plain printer paper, as if the picture was added as an afterthought. It hadn’t clung like the others. Odds were Eliot hadn’t even seen it in his cold, carefully-controlled rage. She turned it over, and blinked.

The other photos were bleak, brutal, left no question in mind as to things like consent or legality. This last bordered on artistic. Shadows played over the profile of a tall, almost skeletal man with bottle-black, slicked-back hair. He was a draconic figure, crouched – vulture-like - to the same level as Nate, who was still facedown on the table. One bony hand clutched tight beneath Nate’s jaw, the other caught in his hair, tilting his head back, his lips pressed to Nate’s mouth in an almost tender kiss. Light caught dawn-like, golden and copper, in Nate’s curls and his half-opened eyes, traced along his cheekbones and the curve of his exposed throat; a brilliant contrast to the old man’s dusk.

Firelight.

Sophie shivered, tracing her fingertips over Nate’s face…and then her gaze fell on the one other bright splash of color in the photograph: a patch of brilliant purple, a stripe of vivid green, glaring out from the shadows near where Nate’s wrists should be. If she squinted, she could just make out the shape of it. It was a necktie.

wait a minute.

Hands shaking ever so slightly, she pawed through the Parker pictures until she unburied the one with Hardison, eyes darting over the crowd, finally landing on the old man.

It was the same man.

Sure, he wasn’t the focus of the picture; sure his hair wasn’t combed back so severely, the suit was different and he was actually smiling – a look that wouldn’t have been out of place on the kindest grandfather’s face – but the skeletal build was the same, and the tie was identical. Bright purple and green stripes on a field of black.

She rubbed her eyes for a second before deciding she wasn’t seeing things, and then picked up her cell phone, dialing Eliot’s number hurriedly. Across the room, the hitter bolted upright, flailing, when his phone vibrated on his chest. It went flying, but he caught it, thumbed the button and answered it before his eyes were even open.

“Sophie?” He barked into the phone before his eyes flickered open, scanned the conference room and focused on her, confusion flickering across his handsome face. “…what.”

…distinctive vibration? Sophie thought before hanging up with an apologetic smile. “That just seemed the….safest way to wake you, somehow.”

Eliot scowled, but it wasn’t really an angry scowl. It was more…sheepish. Perhaps, just a bit, begrudgingly amused. “Not a bad idea,” he admitted, combing his hands through his hair. “What’s up?”

She held up the pictures. He took one look at them and was on his feet.

“I’ll go get Hardison.”

*

“When were you plannin’ on tellin’ me about these?” Hardison asked, pointedly, as he waited for his laptop to wake up. He’d already photographed the photographs Eliot had handed him, he just needed to connect the cell to the computer and pull up the facial recognition software. The pictures lay on the table beside his phone, silently accusing his friends. 

“When it became important.” Eliot loomed behind him, arms crossed – his typical I’m about to get punchy if you don’t stop bugging me stance, weakened somewhat by the worry in his eyes.

“I guess it just became important, hmm? Wouldn’t have had anything to do with the fact that I’m the only one who knows how to use this program?” Silence met his question. “…gotcha there.” He reached out a hand, doing his best glaring-Eliot impression. “Let me see the rest of them.”

“What?” Eliot was unfazed by the glare. Probably because it was his glare.

Hardison shook his head, letting the glare fade and his annoyance show. “We are, last I checked, still a team.” He enunciated carefully. Sophie and Eliot exchanged a look at that, and he waved a hand. “I mean, come on. Nate bein’ out doesn’t mean that stops. We went for what, like, six months without him? Don’t know about you two, not playin’ well with others an’ all, but I sure didn’t suddenly backslide to have the emotional range and maturity of a pre-schooler…” He beckoned, eyes narrowing again.

“Give.”

If they thought they were going to out-stubborn him, they were sadly mistaken. Gladys-Alpha’s screen blinked to life, and he started the software one-handed, the other still held out. Sophie finally let out a sigh, pulled the photographs from beneath the couch and dropped them in Hardison’s hand.

Thank you.” He transferred the pictures from his phone, plugged them into the search field, and let Gladys work while he leafed through the physical photos.

He almost wished he hadn’t asked. The space behind his eyes grew warmer - almost an ache, almost like his mind couldn’t decide between shock and anger and sadness as a go-to emotion - at bare skin and bruises, arched backs and braced feet and blatant violation.

It was a good plan. It was a smart plan. Clever. Don’t sell yourself short.

The memory of Nate’s voice, his reassurances after his first time running the con had been a disaster, echoed when he shook his head, silently slipped the pictures back into their increasingly battered envelope, and set it back onto the table.

Don’t sell yourself short. And then his more typical mental voice, the one that occasionally sounded like Nana, you’ll have time to freak out once everyone else is done.

Gladys pinged, loud in the silence, and he turned to the screen, fingers dancing over the keys, his voice far more subdued. “Let’s see what we’ve got…”

The other two left him alone while he clicked through the database, gleaning the information he usually used for his briefings as quickly as he could in this situation. A moment later he leaned back, pushing the laptop a little bit forward so the others could see.

“Seems like our mystery man is one Malcolm Ian Vicent, from-”

“You mean Vincent?”

Hardison turned in his seat to give Eliot the stink-eye, half annoyed at the interruption, half convinced that Eliot had done it on purpose to return things to something close to normal. “Did I stutter? I said Vicent, and I meant Vicent. Do you mind…?”

Eliot waved for him to continue, and he did.

“Malcolm I. Vicent-” Eliot rolled his eyes at the stress he put on the name. “-is old, man; he’s pushing, like…77, 78. He’s from Portland.” If he’s from Portland, what’s he doing here? “The Portland police department has files on him goin’ back to…1980, mostly on…” He paused, staring at the words on the screen before making a face. “Mostly prostitution. He’s got some brilliant lawyer friends or somethin’, though, ‘cuz nothin’ they’ve thrown at him has stuck in years…” He clicked on another section. “And, oh, lookie there, in the last five years he’s started expanding into the drug scene out there…selling, buying, moving…”

Sophie leaned over his shoulder; she smelled like soap and coffee, none of her usual elegant fragrances, and Hardison realized with a pang that for the third day in a row she wore no makeup.

“Do they have anything before 1980?” she asked; her voice curious. He knew that voice – she’d thought of something.

“Not in the Portland database, but…” he scrolled back down, finding the linked images he thought he’d seen earlier. “Looks like they had an eye on him in the 1970s in…” He clicked the first link. The first thing that popped up when the screen loaded was the familiar logo of the Boston Police Department. “…Boston.”

“Can…” Sophie still sounded thoughtful, her hands clasped together in front of her, fingertips pressed to her lips. “Look for anything marked known associates.”

It took a moment or two. This wasn’t a text file – all the files from Boston were hi-res scans of hand-or-typewritten reports. He was on the third image before the phrase showed up. There were a couple names with slash-marks through them; but two stood out from among all the others:

Jimmy Ford.

Harry Callaghan.

Eliot was on his cell before Hardison even had a chance to point it out.

“Patrick – yeah, you remember that drug bust we helped you out with a couple months back? Any chance you could answer a question or two about that?”

*

He’d didn’t appreciate being left alone with his thoughts, a wasteland of takeout boxes and a pile of photos of his boss and mentor pinned to a damn table. Hardison glowered at Malcolm’s image on the computer screen before shutting the lid roughly, pushing the laptop into its case.

After a second’s thought, he added the envelope. Leaving the pictures here would probably a bad idea. Not as bad as lighting them on fire in the middle of the floor, perhaps, but...still not beneficial, in the long run. He slung the laptop over his shoulder, and padded into the hall.

No one looked twice at him. That first day, after Bonanno had ruined their entire week, they’d run their whole “Bakers” story past the receptionists. Sarah Jane, Mark and Leo Kent-Baker (the cover had just stuck over the years; to the point where Hardison had updated both covers’ histories to include the wedding. Eliot had fussed right until Hardison pointed out that this was Massachusetts and therefore legal. He hadn’t dared to bring up the rings idea just yet) could now visit Tom during normal visiting hours. He slipped into the room, shutting the door behind him.

Parker sat on the second bed, surrounded by ID badges. She looked up at him the moment he shut the door, blue eyes dull in the dim light. “Alec!” She said, brightening as she hopped off the bed, hurrying over to hug him quickly before returning to the bed. “He…nothing’s changed.” The brightness faded as quickly; fiercely. He barely had time to return the hug, one-armed, before she pulled free and went back to the bed. Back to sorting her badges. Hardison shook his head, setting his laptop case on the floor next to the chair.

“You’d have told us if he was, so…” he flopped down on the chair, trying to process the emotions trickling through him. Relief that Parker was talking; the fear that the figure in the bed wasn’t ever going to wake up, anger at the people who put him there and Sophie and Eliot for lying to him…and her…and anger at himself, for the same reason. “I kind of figured that.”

“Did Dr. Keen tell you anything yet?” She was the only one not in the Baker family – though he’d tried to keep it in the same generation with Leela – so the doctor rarely saw a need to talk to her when she came in to check everything.

“No. Just the same old, same old.” He scowled. “I guess I should say no news is good news, but…” It wasn’t. No news was simply no news.

“Why are you here, then?” she asked, suspiciously. He waved his hand at the room.

“I like the ambience?”

I wanted to see you?

She stared at him blankly for a moment, and then started laughing. He stared as she explained, “You made a joke!”

“…I did.” And it wasn’t a particularly funny one, either, but I’ll take whatever I can get.

“I’m glad you’re here.” Parker said, suddenly. The confession shocked a small smile to his face. He was about to respond in kind when she continued. “I didn’t wanna leave him alone but I really need to use the bathroom. Stay here, I’ll be right back. Text if he wakes up.”

And she was gone in a flash of blonde and black.

The room felt far emptier than it should have. Hardison sat, trying to stay still, but his eyes were drawn back to the man in the bed every time, juxtaposing the photographs on his still form.

I’m never going to see you the same, am I ?

“Listen, Nate. We all know what happened to you.” Someone didn’t want to let them forget it, after all. “An’ Sophie told us all what the doctors said, ‘bout there being no reason for you to still be like this.”

There was no sign that Nate heard him. No flickering eyelids, no twitching fingers.

If this were some TV drama I’d at least get an increased heart rate or something.

“If it’s ‘cuz you’re embarrassed or whatever, well…there’s no reason for that, man. We’re more than just a team, remember? We don’t just…ditch each other. Not over somethin’ like this.”

None of them had easy access to their families anymore. He hadn’t talked to Nana in months. Sophie and Eliot, well. They kept their families secret, hidden behind a façade of bluster and reputations. Parker…that was a story best left untouched forever. And Nate…Nate had just lost Jimmy, and there had been enough tension in the air every time the team crossed paths with the mastermind’s father to let Hardison know that that had not likely been a storybook relationship.

In place of those families – broken, missing, unavailable or otherwise – they had…each other. But right now that felt more like it was spinning apart.

“We’ll get you the help you need, we’ll be here…hell, I might even try hypnotizin’ you this time ‘round…”

He’d have cancelled his Warcraft account and deleted his entire Doctor Who collection just to have Nate open his eyes and say that wasn’t funny. Nothing of the sort happened. He rubbed his hand over his eyes, blinking in the blue-tinted gloom.

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, don’t bring that up again, makes you cranky…”

He was holding a conversation with a middle-aged white man in a coma, as if he expected him to talk back. If anyone had told him that five years ago, he would have called them crazy and cleared out their back account for good measure. Another sign of just how much things had changed since he’d found this team.

“But I gotta tell you, man, I’d rather have you cranky than like this. ‘Cuz this is just, like. Super boring.”

And I’m scared I’ll lose all of them if you don’t wake up .

*

Apparently, there were advantages to being arrested when one was old. Harold Callaghan was still under investigation for the drug trafficking charges, but he was waiting out those investigations from a cozy cottage in Beacon Hill.

“You know, once I found out who took me down? I couldn’t make myself be angry. I mean, yes, I did tell my men to shoot your friend in tha’ face, but…well.” The sunlight was warm, beaming through the solarium window of Callaghan’s house. The old racketeer smiled, just a bit, as he sat down on a floral print couch that should never have escaped the ‘70s. “That’s business, right?”

Eliot relaxed in his seat, an unsipped glass of iced tea in his hand, keeping a careful eye out for goons; for any sign of a double-cross. Callaghan just continued, as if he was talking baseball with the boys, and not about a life of crime. “I mean, it’s like bein’ mad that Babe Ruth hit your slider or somethin’, you know? You guys are good. I shoulda expected it.” He gave a little laugh. “Plus, I mean, hey. Jimmy was an old friend of mine, that kid of his was always pretty smart. I guess I’m just losing my touch.”

How about the part where it happened almost by accident? Eliot resisted the urge to smirk, aided by the memory of why they were here.

“Actually, Mr. Callaghan,” he said, respectfully, though the idea of actually respecting some old Irish mobster made his skin crawl. “That ‘kid of his’ is why we’re here…”

Callaghan took a sip of his own tea, glancing out the window instead of meeting Eliot’s eyes. “…oh. So. Those rumors I been hearing the last day or so…”

Eliot sat up a tad straighter. “…rumors?”

I didn’t…damn it all.

He hadn’t even thought of the possibility of rumors. What they could do to them, as a team – not just Nate. Maybe right now it could help them, but…

What will that do to the long haul?

Callaghan’s eyes flickered to Sophie. She met his stare with a blank look of her own, not showing any of the pain Eliot knew she was feeling. Her pain – like his – undoubtedly lay behind a wall of righteous rage, ready to spill out eventually, but shored up strong for now.

“Word on the street,” the mobster finally said when he saw no sign of weakness in the grifter, “at least as my men tell me, is that Nathan Ford went an’ got himself involved in a …” The old man paused, his eyes half closed, as if he was looking for the right word before he finally shrugged. “Well, the term gangbang seems to have been bandied about quite a bit.”

Eliot’s fingers convulsed; the ice-tea glass shattered, but the reaction drew Callaghan’s attention to him instead of on the stricken expression that flickered over Sophie’s face and was gone. His white eyebrows rose, but the look on his face was not quite surprise. “Not rumors?”

“Not rumors.” Eliot started picking the glass off seat. He hadn’t squeezed hard enough to drive it into his skin, but the tea still dripped from his palm. He was supposed to protect them. He’d failed with Nate; he wasn’t going to fail with Sophie. “And that’s why we’re here.”

He reached into his jacket pocket, noting that Callaghan tensed instinctively, and pulled out the curled photo of Parker and Hardison. The other picture – the one with Nate – showed Malcolm’s face better, but he and Sophie had agreed. That one was far too personal to be showing to someone like Callaghan.

“Do you know this guy?”

Callaghan took the picture gingerly, holding it up to the light streaming through the window. Recognition gleamed bright in his eyes. “He’s forty years older, but yeah…yeah I know him. Malcolm Vicent. Mal.” He shook his head in distaste. “He still wears that godawful tie…?”

Sophie’s smile at Callaghan’s confirmation held no warmth, whatsoever. “Apparently, Mr. Callaghan. What can you tell us about Vicent?”

Callaghan gave her a sour look. She met his gaze steadily, took a deliberate sip of her tea as Eliot set a handful of glass shards and ice cubes on the TV tray next to his chair. The old crime boss snorted. “I missed the part where I was giving you any information.”

“Mr. Callaghan, Malcolm used your warehouse for this. Planned for Nate to die there. What makes you think that was an accident? We already know you and Jimmy worked with him in the past, and that he fancies himself a player in the illicit substance trade.” Sophie’s tone was reasonable, but held an edge like a knife. “That would be something of an odd coincidence, don’t you think?”

Callaghan bit his lip, slightly, his wrinkled hands folded on the table before him. He kept playing with the ring on his hand, turning it around and around his finger.

“And if I help you?”

“We take him down so hard he’ll never be able to finish what he started.”

Callaghan looked around the airy room, as if he was still suspicious that he’d find a camera in Sophie’s hand or a microphone swooping at him through the window. Finally convinced – incorrectly so, Eliot had his button cam in place and the earbuds were better than any microphone most of the time, but that was neither here nor there – that he was secure, he nodded.

“Alright. I owe it to Jimmy, anyways, so….alright.” He leaned back in his chair, going for relaxed, but his fingers constantly fidgeted. “This is…off the official record, right?”

Eliot and Sophie replied at the same time.

“Do I look like I’m wearin’ a badge?”

“As far as the police are concerned, this conversation never happened.”

Callaghan relaxed, swirling the tea in his glass like a grandfather about to tell a story. “Back in the ‘60s, there were the big families, right? You had your O’Hares, your Donnellys, your Teagues, but then…there was us. I,” Callaghan looked at Eliot again. “-you swear this is off the record?”

“Look, man, how many times you gotta ask that?” Eliot snapped. “We’re not after you, Patrick’s got enough on you he don’t need our help anymore.”

Callaghan sniffed, but continued. “I – my brother and me – we ran the drugs. Jimmy Ford – rest his soul – ran the numbers, the loans, all that until he went fixer, and Malcolm, well.”

“He worked with the girls?” Sophie asked, though they already knew that much. Callaghan had just seemed to be waiting for that prompt. The old mobster snorted.

“Not just the girls, anyone who looked decent enough to turn heads. I mean….it could have been worse.” His tone went slightly defensive. “Mal usually paid his workers pretty well, wouldn’t let anybody smack ‘em around or anything…”

Eliot half-closed his eyes at that, remembering the folder; the procedural report about the saliva-soaked hundred bill, sealed in with duct tape. From the look on Sophie’s face, she’d thought of the same thing, felt the same swell of nauseated rage.

“We sure as hell weren’t the kings o’ the town,” Callaghan continued in his light brogue, unaware of the emotional conflict going on in front of him as Eliot swallowed the bile, “but we were princes all the same. Right up until…” He trailed off.

“Until what?” Sophie prodded.

“Until summer of ’78, when Mal…” Callaghan shifted slight, looking awkward, though he plowed ahead. “Mal made a few suggestions to Jimmy.”

Eliot’s mind supplied a few ideas about where this was going. He didn’t like any of them, but he still asked. “Suggestions about…?”

“What, exactly, he could and should do with his starry-eyed altar-boy son.”

It was what Eliot had been expecting. The whole conversation had led up to it, but the confirmation still felt something like being smacked, abrupt and unwelcome and bringing with it a resurgence of the anger.

Callaghan still looked reluctant as he remembered. “Nathan was 13. Jimmy…first time, he thought it was a joke. Told Mal to shut his damnfool mouth, sure, but still…he just thought it was Mal being Mal. Second time…well. He didn’t get a third time.” Callaghan’s mouth twitched, like it was trying to pull in a sideways smile.

“Jimmy wanted to kill him. Can’t say I entirely blamed him. I mean, imagine finding out that one of your oldest pals thought you should pimp out your own kid…” He shuddered. “But. Betrayed or not, he was still Mal. We just…ran ‘im out of town, kept him out of town. Last I’d heard, he was out in Portland, hadn’t so much as looked this way since…I dunno, ’95...”

Guess he heard about Jimmy.

“Well.” Sophie was hiding it well, but the rage was starting to show in her voice, creeping around the edges. “Before he went to Portland, where could he be found? Where’d he work?”

“I’ll get you a list.” Callaghan looked at them appraisingly. “You said you’ll take him down hard?” Sophie nodded, mouth a drawn, grim line.

“Then hell, I’ll do you one better. I’ll get you a list of aliases too.”

*

Hardison was asleep when Parker got back from the bathroom (by way of the café, the rooftop, the gift shop and the therapy pool; the room with its silence was starting to get to her). She looked at his lanky frame sprawled out in the chair, feeling that familiar-unfamiliar pang somewhere behind her ribs.

“Alec!” She hissed – he didn’t stir. She poked his arm, and he pulled it away, turning just enough to snuggle down in the chair with a wordless mumble. Parker found herself smiling, slightly; fondly. It was an odd feeling, but a nice one, unlike the odd feelings that came from thinking about Nate asleep like he was, or the odd feeling from Hardison doing things like getting himself locked in coffins. She pulled the blanket from the bed, draping it over his legs where they rested on Nate’s bed. It made an almost-fort, and she stared for a second before crawling into the space under Hardison’s legs and the fuzzy blue blanket.

His laptop rested there, leaned against the chair leg. She reached out to snag it, drag it back into the protective walls of her blanket fort.

Maybe he found that Inspector Spacetime episode…

Maybe Nate would like Inspector Spacetime, too, even if Hardison hadn’t found the elusive special. She tugged Gladys out of the case, scuffing the shiny black laptop lid exactly the way Hardison always yelled at Eliot for but never mentioned to her, and hit the button to turn it on, shoving the faux-leather case back out under the blanket’s edge.

Something fell out of the toppling satchel, audible over the chimes of the computer booting up, and she poked her head out to see what it was. An envelope had fallen free when she shoved the case, a pile of photographs scattered over the carpet.

She crawled her way over to the scattered pictures carefully, silent on the carpet. Hardison snored on as she sat back on her heels, reached out and picked up the closest picture. She flipped it over to see Nate, curled on his side, his hands pinned or tied or something above his head, arms painfully outstretched, an angry red mark on one forearm.

“…um.

Someone else, someone she couldn’t see, was pressed against him from behind, one arm wrapped tight around his naked waist, one slipping further down, their legs intertwined. The general impression of the picture was that Nate was trying very hard to get away, and not succeeding in the least.

She’d seen the look in Nate’s eyes exactly once before, not that long ago, after the bomb blew up the warehouse and Jimmy; the one where he was looking at someone or something that was not there, at least, not in the there that she could see, and if felt…weird. Very weird, and very wrong, almost worse than the hands she couldn’t look at any longer. They reminded her too much of things she would rather forget, made her back itch, something crawling down her spine.

But thinking like that only brought to mind other thoughts.

Thoughts like you…didn’t tell me?

She reached out to take another photograph and froze, hand outstretched, as Hardison’s phone buzzed with an incoming text. The hacker slept on, and the thief picked up the next picture.

Wait, is that…Bunny?

Her mind took the image of her sleeping, the stuffed rabbit held close; added it to Nate in the unkind arms of an unkind stranger; divided it all by the team keeping her out of the loop.

The only answer supplied was one that made every thought taste like rage.

*

“We can’t kill him. Them.” Sophie’s voice broke the stillness in the car as the streetlights cast their multicolored glow through the windshield. Eliot just stared at the street ahead of them.

The question had honestly been in the back of his mind since he’d found the photographs. The first, deepest instinct had been just that: find the men responsible and break every bone in their bodies. That desire still lay there, curled like a sleeping snake in his belly: dormant, but ready to strike the moment it woke.

He’d killed for Nate before. Sophie didn’t know it – none of the team knew it, besides Nate – but he’d picked up those guns willingly to save Nate’s life. But in this case, the older man’s life was already spared. This was all just a matter of cleaning up someone else’s mess.

In the end, there really was only one possible answer.

“No, you’re right. Nate wouldn’t want that.” The words came out as a growl, no matter how he tried to tame them. They were already skating on thin ice as it was, cutting deals with Callaghan, but…killing Nate’s attackers would be a leap in the wrong direction.

Wouldn’t be the first time…

He shook the thought off as they turned onto Fruit Street. They parked Eliot’s Challenger in some doctor’s reserved spot, and made it halfway to the building proper before Sophie spoke again.

“I…almost think Nate was more a message than anything. Mal, telling the Families in Boston he’s ready to return.”

The three Families hated Jimmy Ford after the whole debacle with the ledger, after all. And if Mal couldn’t take out Jimmy Ford, surely taking out Nathan Ford would be almost as good – if not better. Punishing the son for the sins of the father.

The thought made him want to punch something. Hard. He pushed the door open, shaking his head, though he couldn’t find it in his heart to disagree. “That’s a hell of a message.”

“Go big, or go home…” Sophie said, softly, staring at her reflection in the next set of doors. Eliot almost reached out to pat her on the shoulder, but thought better of it at the last minute, running his hand through his hair instead.

“So…how do you want to play this, guys?” Hardison asked; his voice sleepy as they made a perfunctory check in at the reception desk before making their way to the second floor. It was the question Eliot wasn’t even sure he had anything close to an answer for, the first comment the younger man had made through the earbud in hours.

The hitter paused outside the door to Nate’s room to check the hall, leaning against the wall with one forearm. “If it were Nate and any one of us…well. Nate would destroy everything Vicent’s ever touched. But.”

“But?” Sophie asked.

“We’re not Nate.” Hardison answered the question for him, pulling the door open and giving them both a stern look. “Y’all are lucky he’s, like, the only one in this wing right, you know that? Otherwise, we’d be answerin’ all sorts of interesting questions about now…”

The hacker looked tired, drawn, normally animated eyes dull. The blanket from the other bed lay scrunched in a wrinkled pile on the floor. The moment the door closed, Hardison was off on the other side of the room, searching for...something. Eliot frowned, looking around the room himself as Hardison crawled under the extra bed.

“I know that,” Sophie said, sinking onto Nate’s bed carefully. “I just…don’t know that he’d appreciate us…going off the rails for him.” Her hand brushed over a blanketed knee, and Eliot tried to squelch the anger for her sake, eyes drawn to Hardison’s sneakered feet.

“Nobody’s goin’ off the rails, Sophie, we just-”

Hardison stuck his head out from under the empty bed, suddenly, eyes wide.

“…where’s Parker?”

*


Does it comfort you to know you fought the good fight?
Basking in your victory, hollow and alone
While you boast your bitter bragging rights to anyone who'll listen.
While you're left with nothing tangible to gain…

*

The alarm clock goes off at seven, blaring the Eurythmics into the previously peaceful bedroom: I travel the world and the seven seas, everybody’s looking for something.

He’s been awake for the last half-hour, just staring at the lights on the ceiling and listening to Maggie breathing. Something had woken him, but by the time his eyes flickered open, he’d already forgot what it was.

And he’s ok with that, with just lying here and…

“Get up and turn that off,” the muted grumble emanates from Maggie’s blanket-swathed form, “or you are sleeping on the couch for the rest of this vacation.”

Well. So much for that idea.

Nate staggers out of the bed, scuffing the sleep from his eyes as he stumbles for the alarm clock, conveniently placed halfway across the room because both of them would, if given the choice, stay in bed and hit the snooze button indefinitely. And then, because he’s up, he simply stays up, pulling his bathrobe on over his boxers and t-shirt and heading for the stairs. Maggie will, if her voice was any indication, need coffee soon.

“Don’t forget,” Maggie calls after him, voice only moderately more awake. “Your dad’s coming over for dinner…”

He’s only halfway down the stairs when he hears the familiar sound of crunching cereal and hyper-frenetic cartoons. Sam’s awake. Nate stumbles past the door, pokes his head into the living room, prepared for the sight of the boy and his blanket and a box of Crunchberries.

Instead, he sees the girl from last night sitting on the back of the couch, leaning forward as if she’s seconds away from leaping into the varicolored world of Avatar: the Last Airbender, Sam perched next to her feet.

“How is he flying?” The girl asks as Sam grabs the box back from her, entirely unconcerned by this strange young woman in their house.

“Because he’s Aang. He can control the air.” Sam says, popping a handful of cereal in his mouth and digging in the box for more. The girl frowns, as if she doesn’t follow Sam’s train of thought.

“But that hang-glider thing isn’t even close to aerodynamic and-Oh!” She pushes her hair out of her face, waving cheerily. “Hi, Nate!”

“What are you doing here?” Nate can feel his forehead wrinkling in confusion, feel a strange throbbing in his temple, but the girl shrugs, reclaiming the box from Sam and holding it out to him.

“Watching cartoons?” She says, as if it should be apparent. “Eating cereal and talking to Sam, here.”

Maybe she’s an escaped mental patient. You’re supposed to treat them carefully, right?

He’s not convinced, but he lets her stay there as he boots up the computer, coffee momentarily forgotten at the sticky feeling of the keyboard under his fingers. He never remembered to clean up the beer from last night. He mutters under his breath as he types in the password anyway –

And blinks at his wallpaper.

It’s been changed to a cat macro.

The girl bursts out laughing behind him, but when he turns, her bright blue eyes are fixed on the television screen and Sokka, and Sam is giggling too. There’s something about this that seems wrong, and something that seems right at the same time. He tries not to think too hard about it as he searches Google for psych hospitals in the area.

The girl’s still there an hour later when he’s still on hold. The first five places he called had answering machines, or busy signals, and he’s about ready to try calling the police, though he really doesn’t like that idea. So far, all the young woman’s done is watch cartoons and mooch cereal. It’s hardly criminal behavior, and so he stays on hold, idly clicking through his email.

It’s mostly junk, though as the clock moves on to the sound of his son and the girl giggling helplessly an email from Sterling comes through. Nate winces, and clicks on it, prepared to see a tirade about the appropriateness of sarcasm in email.

I won’t be stateside on Saturday, I’m in Milan, remember? The message reads, and Nate can practically hear Sterling’s deadpan voice. I already told Maggie as much, back in March. You two really should work on your communication skills.

Sterling spoke to Maggie outside work? That was news – but then, it makes sense. Sterling chases stolen art, Maggie appraises art…for a moment, he feels a surge of regret for the days gone by, but…it’s better this way. Sam needed one stable parent in his life, even if that one stable parent was prone to moments of forgetfulness and lapses in common sense…

How’s the consulting going? Blackpoole’s not got you still crunching numbers, does he? Tell him your talent is wasted there. Get a trainer position or something. I know you can’t see yourself in the field anymore, but you’re not a desk jockey, Nathan. Or do yourself one better. Quit and go into private consulting. Start your own firm. Just get the hell out before you lose touch with the stuff that makes you good at what you do.

Nate stares at the email for a second, eyes flicking to the top of the screen just to check – it was from Sterling’s personal email, not his work email, and he lets out a small sigh of relief, even as he’s not entirely sure how to reply to that.

He’s saved from having to do so by the phone dying in his hand with a sickly beep, disconnecting him from the Schreiber Psychiatric Center, and Sam pouncing on his back.

“I’m going over to Kenny’s,” he says, squeezing tight enough that Nate is suddenly relieved he was only eight, with an eight-year-old’s weight behind the hug. The front door hangs open, the friend in question waving at his son, and suddenly the grip was gone. “I’ll be back for lunch!”

The door slams behind him before Nate has a chance to say goodbye.

“They grow up so fast…” Nate hears, soft, from the direction of the couch, but by the time he’s looked over, the girl is gone again, the window hanging open wide, curtains blowing wistfully in the breeze.

*

Dinner is a strangely subdued affair after breakfast with the girl and lunch with Sam. Jimmy Ford pokes at his pasta, though he insists over and over again that Nate’s done alright. It feels…wrong, somehow, as Sam tears through his spaghetti and meatballs.

“You’re like your mother, Nathan,” Jimmy says at one point, when Nate’s trying to decide whether breaking out the wine would cheer his father up or make him worse. “Always worryin’ about everyone else…” He twirls his fork in his noodles, wrapping the strands around and around his fork. Nate frowns, not following, and Jimmy waves with the utensil. “You loved bein’ an investigator. Why’d you decide to switch now?”

They’ve had this conversation before, he’s moderately certain, back before he decided to ask for the position change. They’ve talked about the doctor’s visit where the pediatrician had mentioned the anomalies in Sam’s routine, pre-soccer blood work. They’ve talked about the fact that Nate’s not getting any younger – an argument Jimmy had mocked relentlessly for a good three hours.

There’s no need to rehash this now, and he says as much, painfully aware of Sam’s eyes on him, big and dark the way they always get whenever parents or grandparents seem unhappy. Nate winces, and softens his voice. “We just…thought it was the best decision to make at the time, alright?”

Jimmy still doesn’t look convinced.

“Just don’t let it kill ya like it did your mother….” He says, his creaky, accented voice almost haunted. “Remember that?”

“…sure thing, Dad.” Nate says, briskly, spearing a leaf of his salad with, perhaps, a tiny bit too much enthusiasm, but if it comes down to being excited over vegetables against listening to Jimmy, well. He knew which he could handle better. “So,” he adds, hurriedly, “How ‘bout them Red Socks?”

*

The rest of the evening goes alright. They watch baseball on the couch, Nate surreptitiously digging discarded crunchberries out of the cushions as Sam and Jimmy debate player stats. It isn’t until Jimmy’s gone and Nate’s tucking Sam in that the supper conversation comes up.

“Dad?”

“Yeah, Sam?”

“What did Gramps mean about Grammy?”

Nate stands staring at the bookshelf, looking past crayoned copies of Doctor Seuss books and Goosebumps and his old, tattered copy of The Last Unicorn that he hopes Sam will have the patience for one day.

“Your grandma was a very strong woman,” he finally decides on, carefully. “She loved a lot of people, gave a lot of things to a lot of people.” And in the end, she didn’t save enough for herself. “Money, clothes, food, attention, love…” And she still died happy.

“Sometimes, when you work too hard at something, at making others happy, you…you get too tired. You wear yourself out.”

“And…you die?” Sam’s voice sounds much smaller for a moment, and for that moment Nate looks at him, seeing only the toddler he’d been when his grandmother passed on.

“Sometimes.”

“Grammy’s in heaven, though, right?”

The question clogs Nate’s throat, and he stares fiercely at the bedspread for a moment. It’s a deep, dark blue to go with the dark blue on the walls, dotted with the glow-in-the-dark stars that Sam had picked out. He finally sits down on the edge of the bed, reaching out to tousle his son’s hair. Sam doesn’t push his hand away this time.

“Yeah, buddy. She’s in heaven.” And he believes it, really, truly, lights candles for her at Mass every Saturday night. “She’s happy and she’s safe and…”

“Daddy, what’s heaven like?”

And, like that, the hair on the back of Nate’s neck prickles. They’ve had this conversation before. He’s absolutely certain of it; he can still taste the words he said last time, inadequate and heavy on his tongue, heady with potential.

“No one really knows,’ he starts, slowly, and Sam – his mother’s too-sharp, too-smart eyes already looking for cracks in his logic – frowns, slightly. “No one has come back to tell us, and-”

“Would Father Paul know?”

“Probably not…but you could ask him if you want…?”

Sam frowns, and Nate stands, ducking down to kiss his hair, holding him close for a fleeting moment. “I can tell you, it’s a good place.” Had he said that last time, reassured his son that the wild unknown didn’t have to be scary? Or… “But…it’s a hard thing to think about, and you need to get some sleep.” He tugs the blankets smooth, takes a step away. Sam still looks lost, bewildered, and Nate looks back to the bookcase.

“Do you want me to read you something?”

Sam nods. Nate takes a book from the shelf at random, and so Sam falls asleep to the sounds of A. A. Milne.

 

“High was the sun, when
John went away . . .
Here they’ve been waiting
All through the day;
Big Bears and Little Bears,
White Kings and Black,
All of them waiting
Till John comes back…”

*

The television’s still on when he goes downstairs.

The ballgame over, it’s playing some procedural medical drama. There’s a kid on the screen in a hospital bed, tapes and wires wound around his small frame; his eyes dark smudges in a pale face.

When he flips the TV off, he sees those eyes for a long, long time.

Chapter Text

IV

But there's a side to you
That I never knew, never knew.
All the things you'd say
They were never true, never true,
And the games you play
You would always win, always win.

But I set fire to the rain,
Watched it pour as I touched your face,
Well, it burned while I cried
'Cause I heard it screaming out your name, your name…

*

“She’s gone. Gone, and she took my phone.”  Hardison’s laptop was on, a street map of Boston filling the entire screen. A little red dot blinked, stationary, halfway to the waterfront. The text next to the dot said HARDISON. An identical red dot, PARKER, flickered; traveling at a steady pace through the city, following the subway lines.

“What happened?” Sophie asked, urgently. “You didn’t have a fight, did you?”

“No, we didn’t fight, I…”

 Hardison froze suddenly; the wheels in his head clearly spinning. He dove for his laptop case on the other side of the blanket while Sophie and Eliot glanced at each other in bemusement. “Hardison, what…”

When Hardison looked up at them, his eyes were suddenly wide. “She, uh, she...she found the pictures, man.” He was on his feet in a second, his fingers curled tight around the rail of Nate’s bed as he kicked the blanket off his foot, talking rapidly. “Ya’ll wouldn’t let me… We never…” His mouth thinned and he squared his shoulders, letting go of the blame game for the time being. “She didn’t know what happened to him.”

Eliot’s eyes slid closed and he pinched the bridge of his nose, barely hearing Sophie’s soft murmur of realization through the warning sirens in his skull.

“She’s gone after Vicent.”

There is no way this ends well.

“Maybe?” Hardison replied, minimizing the program tracking the cell phone GPS. Another window sprang up in its place, allowing the group of images that looked like land titles, deeds and business licenses to the screen’s forefront. “…woah woah woah.”

“What?”

Hardison’s fingers flew over the keyboard, his eyebrows climbing towards his hairline. “These are addresses that come up if you search for any of the aliases you sent me.” He turned the computer so they could see. Eliot counted ten properties before the hacker spun the computer back around. “It was…these were already here. I think it’s safe to guess that, yes, she’s gone after Vicent.”

They all knew Parker’s reputation, though she didn’t really talk about it; rumors of a childhood tinged in firelight hues. None of them, however, had had to think of it for years; hadn’t had to consider the possibility that the stories were the truth until…well, now. Eliot glanced at Nate’s comatose form, trying to imagine the thief’s reaction to the images of violation and abuse.

The thought was enough to send them all towards the door, Hardison babbling as he pulled up the police and fire dispatch sites. “We gotta find her, and I got no idea which building she’d go for first, I mean, they’re all over the damn city, half of ‘em are all just random, and…” He paused in the doorway, Sophie almost on his heels. “You comin’, Eliot?”

“I’ll be out in a sec,” the hitter replied, reaching down to pick up the rumpled puddle of blanket on the floor. Hardison vanished, and Sophie soon followed after giving Eliot an understanding look. He folded the extra blanket neatly, just something to do with his hands, watching the slow, steady heartbeat on the monitor.

“Remember when Hardison said you broke us?”

The heart monitor beeped, reassuringly regular, but still wrong; wrong to have one of his people reduced to that sound. Eliot glowered at it.

“I agreed with him then and I agree with him now, man, and you know how much I hate to do that. You did break us.” He tapped the bed railing with one hand, gave Nate one last look, and shook his head. “But…I never said thanks for putting the pieces back together wrong.”

He shut the door so softly behind him that it didn’t even click.

Sophie and Hardison met him in the hall; Hardison leaned against the wall, balancing his laptop on one hand and messing with a backup cell phone with the other. The grifter looked over at him when he joined them, ignoring the police officer sitting outside the door.

“Boston’s a big city; we’re not going to be able to cover that much ground if we go together. So…while we check those out,” Sophie gestured to the paper sticking out of Eliot’s pocket: the neatly printed list of names and places Callaghan had given them. “Hardison’s…going to go see if he can find Parker.”

Behind him, in the lounge, the trumpets of some local special report blared through the air. “We have breaking news from South Boston, where, apparently, firefighters are battling two almost identical blazes that broke out less than an hour ago…

Hardison blinked without looking up from his computer. The GPS program had his phone less than a block away from that first fire, and that same location was listed right at the top of the dispatch site.

“And I am going to start there.”

Eliot shook his head, looking at him. “You know she won’t be there anymore, right?”

“Yeah, I know.” Hardison smiled, tightly, utterly and completely distracted by his screen. “I just want to start by getting my phone back.”

Eliot chose not to point out the obvious lie.

*

The big deserted building went up like kindling.

Parker stared at the flames, sitting cross-legged; close enough that she could feel the heat on her eyelashes every time she blinked. It didn’t burn away the feeling in her gut and the back of her head any more than the other three had, but it was pretty anyways.

She could still smell the smoke from those fires, acrid, clinging to her like perfume. It was a familiar scent. The first time she’d even burned something was when she was a child, playing with magnifying glasses. She’d lit her curtains on fire, entirely by accident. Her foster mom had been furious, and sent her and her little brother out, indefinitely. Wisconsin was cold in January. Parker had kept the magnifying glass, lit something on fire for the second time, burnt down the doghouse before the woman had let them back in.

…that hadn’t been a very good winter. But, somehow, this was even less satisfying. In her mind’s eye, Malcolm Vicent was in the flames, bound with that garish tie and kindled with the evidence of his crimes. She could picture the glossy photographs curling and smoking, and smirked, just a bit.

She’d find Vicent. It was just a matter of time. He needed these buildings. That much was clear.

So, she was going to take them from him, like he had tried to take Nate.

The fire danced in her eyes until she heard the sirens, and then she stood, balling up the print-out of a scan of a photocopy of this property’s deed.

For all the complaining Hardison did about how difficult his job was, it had been deceptively simple to plug the names Eliot had texted him into one of those fancy programs on his computer, to search Boston for anything with any of those names on the paperwork. Hardison had just snored on, stress-tired and soul-sick, and she’d let him, hoping hospital staff wouldn’t notice the borrowed printer suddenly spewing page after page of scanned property information.

He didn’t trust me enough to tell me. They didn’t trust me enough.

She tossed the crumpled printout into the flames, watching orange and yellow tongues lick up the white paper. That thought hurt, almost physically, the pain drowning out the tiny little voice that tended to speak in four-part harmony as it said, well, look at what you’re doing. Maybe they were right?

She scowled and checked the ground beneath her feet. There were no footprints in the gravel, no scraps of paper left behind, no cookie crumb to lead them after her. She’d already left marks elsewhere – like her cell phone, left in a random red line subway car. Like the Ford Taurus she’d sent into the Harbor, pointed some 45 degrees from the direction she was going before she picked up the awful truck currently sending exploding gouts of flame into the darkening sky.

That one had taken some thought. If Hardison chased her – and she really suspected he would – he wouldn’t fall for a car pointed the opposite direction, and if she pointed the car where she was headed, he’d just see that as an invitation. Sometimes, he was smart enough to do that. So, in the end, she’d just made sure the car went in and stayed visible.

At least I left my phone where they could find it, instead of sinking it with the car.

The sirens grew louder, and she almost skipped to the parking garage across the street, already trying to decide what kind of car to take.

*

Callaghan’s list was almost more thorough than it was useful. The first two addresses he’d given were a wash. One building had been repurposed as a nightclub, a place full of Day-Glo colors and black lights that didn’t look like the sort of place an old-money mobster would frequent. Eliot traded glances with the bouncer, who looked like a brick wall stuffed in a cheap suit. The bouncer looked away first.

The next building on the list was condemned and boarded up, graffiti on the moldering walls, and no signs of life in the last thirty years.

Sophie took lead when the third address turned out to be a pub. She’d applied makeup in the car, more than usual, and the darkness around her eyes, the vibrancy of her lips, made her look like smoke and fire: beautiful, and dangerous.

“Sophie…” Eliot reached out to block her from opening the door, and she shot him a look, hand on the doorknob.

“Be careful.” He said, simply. “We don’t know who might be here.”

Hopefully, someone we’re looking for, she thought. “Should I have sent you with Hardison?” She asked, almost-but-not-quite teasing.

“Hell no.”

The hitter hung back as she pulled open the door and sauntered into the pub, noting with no small amount of satisfaction that every eye in the place was drawn to her like moths to an open flame. She smiled, coolly, and prowled up to the bar itself.

“What’s a girl gotta do to get a drink around here?”

The bartender looked her up and down openly, and raised one eyebrow. “Well, for starters, she walks in here lookin’ like that.” He waved a broad hand at the rows of bottles behind him. “Pick your poison, first drink’s on the house.”

“Jack and Diet, please.”

She watched the other patrons while the bartender prepared her drink, reassured by Eliot’s mere presence, skulking around the edges of the room. The pub was lit by low lamps that did little against the gloom and once she was at the bar itself, it was hard to tell who was looking at her, or even who all was in the room.

“I don’t think this place is on any pub crawl lists,” Eliot said in her ear bud, and she smirked, just a bit.

“No? And here I was just thinking about its ambience and old-world charm…ah!” The bartender slid her drink to her, still leering. “Here’s mud in your eye, chum.” She saluted him with her glass before taking a very small sip. She nursed her drink for a long, long time before she turned to the barkeep again.

“I was wondering,” Sophie said, deliberately loud and slightly wobbly, “If you could help me find somebody.” She took the photograph from her purse, a printout of one of the police file’s latest photos of Vicent. “Have you seen him before?” She asked, spinning it to show the bartender, making sure to flash it so the rest of the bar could see. The bartender started to frown, caught himself – but not before Sophie saw it, that small giveaway.

“Nope. Never seen him before in my life.”

And I’m crown princess of all England.

“Ah. I was told I could find him here.” Sophie pouted, just a bit. “Uncle Malcolm is so hard to contact these days…”

Uncle-” the bartender sputtered, but choked off the rest of the sentence when Sophie arched a regal eyebrow at him, suddenly becoming rather pointedly interested in scrubbing the beer taps behind him.

“Anything?” She asked, softly, and Eliot’s voice came back.

“There’s a guy, end of the bar. He looks mighty interested, I can tell you that much.” Sophie took a peek that direction, noting that the bartender had disappeared.

The man at the bar was young, maybe twenty-six, twenty-seven, short, with a build like a bulldog, a shock of dirty-blonde hair and the sort of narrow hatchet face that only a mother could love. He kept glancing her way, almost nervously, and she moved so she was facing the other direction, hoping to put him a little more at ease.

“He is acting awfully shifty, isn’t he?” she purred. If she turned her head just so, he looked an awful lot like one of the men from the worst of the horrid pictures, though his clothes were different and he’d clearly washed his hair. The thought narrowed her eyes to slits.

“Yeah. And before you started flashing around that picture, he was calm as a cucumber.”

“Tsk. Amateur.

“Alright.” Eliot was on the move again, appearing out of the dim recesses of the pub. “I’ll see if he bites. Keep an eye out.”

“Ten-four, captain.”

“…don’t ever say that again.”

*

The green glint of Parker’s cell phone caught Hardison’s eye on the third seat of the subway. He ducked further into the car, snagged the phone, and darted out the doors again before they could close. The phone was still on, and when he looked at it, the background had been changed to Parker’s scowling face. He frowned right back at it as he darted up the stairs to the surface, almost absently changing it back to its default piñata.

You can’t say y’all didn’t ask for this.

The last four hours had been, in a way, like an insane scavenger hunt. So far, he’d found his cell phone (and a burning building), three abandoned cars (really, the third had been through sheer luck, and he’d wiped the ATM’s video footage just to make sure no one else had that luck) and…several more burning buildings, each one kindled by some poor unsuspecting civilian’s car.

The police and fire channels on the scanner he’d unburied in Lucille’s back were alight with the emergency responders – the biggest worry of the evening was that this was some sort of gang activity or coordinated, low-level terrorist attack. In any other circumstance, it would have almost been funny.

E Company, we’ve got reports of another fire…”

Hardison waited for the address, shoving Lucille into drive and pulling away from the curb in a squeal of tires, already heading towards the latest blaze.

Damn, girl, you don’t do things by halves.

*

The fifth car gave her a bit of trouble. The kerosene caught too quickly, and she was barely out of the driver’s seat before the flames hit the gas tank.

The explosion threw her clear; she hit the alley wall and rolled to land on her feet, watching the glass rain down from the destroyed windows. Some of it clung to the wooden frames, crystalline fangs stubbornly refusing to fall free for the tooth fairy.

Parker scowled at it, picked up a rock and chucked it at the largest shard. The glass shattered with a musical sound, sparkling in the orange glow, and she nodded her satisfaction, prowling down the street to the cacophony of sirens at her back.

*

Eliot stalked to the bar, plunked himself down on the barstool next to the young man, and ordered two rounds, “One for me, an’ one for my buddy here!” the moment the bartender reappeared from his back room. The sentence was accompanied by a rough pat on the back that almost sent the younger man toppling from his bar stool.

“Who the hell are you?” The kid asked once he regained his balance, his stare supremely suspicious and his voice smooth as silk. It didn’t fit his body. “I’ve never seen you ‘round before.”

Charmer,” Sophie remarked, quietly, in his ear.

You’ve got that right.

“A fan.” Eliot replied simply, taking the beers when the bartender returned with the two frosty bottles. He passed one to the other man, trying to rid himself of the bone-deep conviction that it would be a good idea to break the bottle and ram the shards through the kid’s chin.

You have no idea if he had anything to do with it yet.

“Just a fan.” He smiled, tightly, letting none of his thoughts show on his face.

“A fan, eh?” The man took a sip from his bottle, raised an eyebrow. “Fan of…?”

“A job well done.” Eliot spoke carefully, calmly. Only someone who had known him for years would know that there was even a trace of danger in his tone. The comment was innocent enough. It the young man hadn’t done anything, the conversation would simply be one of those strange, surreal experiences one tended to have with drunks.

If not…

“Oh!” Eliot’s target broke into a grin, taking another swig of the beer. “You heard about that?”

“Hard not to, the whole town’s talkin’ about it.” According to Callaghan’s intel, anyways. They’d have to look into it, see if there actually were rumors flying. See if there was any way to stifle them, tamp them down. Their target sat up a little straighter at the words that coated Eliot’s tongue in bitter anger. “I mean, Nathan Ford? Damn.”

“I know, right?” The young man held out a hand, grinning like a kid now. “Toby Douglas,” he offered.

“El,” Eliot returned, simply.

“Can I tell you a secret, El?” Toby said, leaning forward conspiratorially.

“Shoot.”

“It was an accident.”

“…no way.”

“Yeah, I mean, I didn’t kno-”

“Toby!”

The loud voice came simultaneous with Sophie’s smooth, “Eliot, incoming.”

Eliot and Toby both turned on their bar stools, Eliot sizing up the men standing behind them. One was wiry, built for speed over anything else. The other could have been the earlier nightclub bouncer’s clone: heavy; built like a brick wall, and possibly about as intelligent. Both men felt as familiar as Toby had; he’d seen them in the pictures, too. Not their faces, but their builds and fleeting mannerisms, hovering around the edges of the scenes caught in the camera’s lens. Not entirely comfortable with what was going on, but making no moves to stop it.

That almost makes me hate you more. He took a gulp of his beer to hide the fact that he could feel his molars grinding.

“Oh, hi, guys!” Toby said cheerily. “What’re you doin’ here? Mal’s not back yet. This is El. He bought me beer.” Toby hoisted the beer, as if the other two needed a visual to process his words. “El, this is Kevin,” he waved the beer towards the larger of the two, and then moved it to the smaller, “And that’s Rob. Guys, this is…”

“El,” said Kevin, shortly, running a hand through his short-cropped hair, almost as nervous as Toby had been just moments before. “We heard.”

“Yeah, yeah, El.” Toby beamed. It did little positive for his fox-like features. “He was just givin’ me props for the Ford thing…”

Neither Kevin nor Rob were as dim as Toby, it would seem. Kevin’s eyes were just widening in realization when Eliot casually snapped the neck off his forgotten beer bottle, smiling faintly. His beer clearly wasn’t the first thing Toby had drunk this evening, because the young man kept rambling, clueless.

“…El. Like the letter L, right? What’s that stand for, like, Luke or Lindsey or-”

Rob took a step back when Eliot stood, staggering into Kevin’s bulky chest in his haste to not be there anymore. The hitter’s small smile stretched into a broad, piranha’s grin as he took a single step forward.

“How about short for Eliot?”

“No, that doesn’t make…any…” The penny dropped, and Toby’s eyes suddenly went wide. “…ohshit.”

Yeah.

They never saw it coming. If it wasn’t for Nate, lying insensate in his hospital bed, Eliot might have actually felt bad.

might.

*

The last building lit up the pre-dawn, the fire reflecting against and through the fog coming off of the harbor.

Hardison watched it with a shiver, listening to the scanner in his pocket going mad. The fires at the first four buildings had been extinguished hours ago; the last five had been reduced to controlled burns, but even a controlled burn required fire crews. The city was now effectively short-staffed, and Hardison prayed that there wouldn’t be another fire until they’d managed to snuff out the embers of Parker’s anger.

He paced around the dilapidated chain link fence that separated this burning building from the alleyway, peering through the shadows that danced in the golden glow where streetlight and firelight mingled, jumping when a misstep upended a crate and sent empty bottles smashing to the pavement.

“Parker?”

Nothing. He looked back over his shoulder towards safety, towards Lucille 3.0 and her welcoming interior before forging onward towards the building, his laptop case held like a weapon.

The heat grew warmer and warmer as he moved, and he tried not to think about all the ways arson could go wrong; about Parker caught in falling debris or a back-draft. Tried not to imagine what it must have been like, bound and helpless and listening to that roaring hiss, like a dragon searching for prey.

“Parker!” He called again, so busy trying not to think of things that he almost didn’t notice the shadow detaching from a larger pool of darkness, a handful of burning papers held carefully.

“Oh. Hi, Alec.” He let out an embarrassingly high-pitched shriek, backpedaling half a step, flailing to keep his balance. The shadow pulled back the dark hood of his sweatshirt, the one he always kept in Lucille - Parker didn’t take her eyes off the carefully held flames when she continued. “I guess I didn’t hide good enough this time.”

Hardison pressed one narrow hand to his chest, feeling his heartbeat strong in his throat, his temple. “Geeze, girl you scared me.” Under normal circumstances, she would have cackled. As it was, she just dropped the now-engulfed paper. Hardison caught a glimpse of Nate’s battered body before the picture curled, blackening and brightening at the same time. “You shouldn’t hide from us, Parker. We…we need you.”

“Need me?” Parker spat back, stomping her foot down on the glowing sparks left in the fire’s wake. They blossomed from beneath her sneaker when she ground her heel viciously. “Why would you need me? I can’t help with something if I have no clue it’s even going on.”

“I…” Not for the first time, he found himself wishing for Nate’s way with words, for Eliot’s confidence…hell, he’d even be willing for just an ounce of Sophie’s acting skills. “P-Parker…”

Parker glowered furiously at him, the firelight caught in the gleam of her eyes, and the look was as terrifying as Eliot’s glares. Perhaps even more scary because it was even less sane. She advanced on him, jabbing her finger at his chest. “You didn’t tell me. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Hardison opened his mouth, mentally scrolling through his options. Because you’re Parker and you have personal space issues that lead to stabbing people with forks. Because Nate’s our friend and we didn’t protect him and you’re our friend and we’re trying to protect you from our pain; we were scared it’d freak you out; we were freaked out to talk about it, period…

All of the words seemed like the wrong answer, well-meant excuses tumbling over and under one another in his head, clogging behind his teeth, and the only sentence that would form was a muted, “I’m sorry.”

Parker eyed him sharply, hawkish, her shoulders curved defensively, and he drew in a shaky breath to continue.

“We should have told you and we didn’t, and I can’t speak for the other two, but I am so, so sorry.”

She looked away for a moment, her blue eyes fever-bright behind the smoke-soaked curtain of her hair. She didn’t move, didn’t speak, barely seemed to breathe. Hardison hesitated for a second before he gingerly reached out to touch her shoulder.

“Forgive m-?” the rest of the words cut off in a gasp when Parker drew him into a tight, fierce hug, burying her face against his neck. It wasn’t a very comfortable hug, desperate and wild, but he wrapped his arms around her and let her cling.

I don’t need to breathe that badly, anyway.

“Don’t,” Parker hissed in his ear, “don’t do that again. Don’t keep secrets like that from me. Ever.” She pulled free, rounding on him with her fists clenched. Hardison resisted the urge to take a step back, watching her. Her slender frame quivered with her emotions, and for a second, the thief reminded him of nothing more than an angry lioness.

Nate keeps secrets, you don’t! I have a Nate, I don’t need another one. I need an Alec.” She paused, her voice going soft, hinting of remorse and petulance and emotions he couldn’t quite name. “I need my Alec.”

“I already told you I’m sorry, ma’, an’ I’ll say it again, an’ maybe I deserve to be doin’ that for a long time, but…” Hardison gave the blazing inferno across the vacant lot a pointed look, reaching out to cautiously take one kerosene scented hand. She didn’t pull away as he started walking towards Lucille, away from the crackling, roaring hiss of flame and the far-off wail of the newest fire engine. “I think I need my Parker.”

The thief didn’t respond verbally, but she pulled closer with every step until they walked, nearly arm in arm, steps nearly synchronized. She was warm against his side in the chilly air, and he could still smell the scent of her kiwi shampoo under the smoke and kerosene and sweat.

“I didn’t get Vicent,” she said, so low he almost didn’t hear her.

He ducked his head, giving a little half-shrug. “I know.”

“I wanted to get Vicent,” she added, her voice still low, her grip unconsciously growing tighter on his arm. Hardison just shifted his arm a little bit and she seemed to get the message; at least, her fingers loosened. “You don’t…you don’t do that to people. You… let them say no and then you listen when they say it.”

“I know.”

She shivered, and he reached out to open Lucille’s passenger door for her, catching her eyes reflected in the window. They weren’t quite as bright now, not quite as razor-edged, and he managed a small smile. She returned it, and then, as he stepped out of the way of the open door, she stood straight and planted a light kiss on the side of his jaw before slipping into the van and slamming the door.

He stood there for a second, lifting his hand to brush his face gently before Parker’s window rolled down. She stuck her head out, her grin almost-cheery, if he didn’t look too close.

“Are you getting in, or do I need to hotwire the van and leave you here?”

Normalcy flooded him for a brief, reassuring second.

“Hey – HEY! Don’t you go touching that!”

*

“You’re not gonna believe this, Spencer, but Douglas wants to talk.”

*

The interrogation room was small; it smelled like a trap, though he would never find the right words to explain that to anyone not on his team. Eliot sat sprawled in the desk chair, looking far more relaxed than he felt. He made sure he was there first – it gave him the emotional high ground, the foothold on this tiny territory, an advantage on the scum they were about to bring through the door.

Bonanno and a uniformed officer led Toby Douglas into the room, fastening his handcuffs to the slot in the table before the uniform left. The hitter just looked at Toby, arms crossed, for the first few minutes. Precious time ticking by on clock, but he could make it up later if Toby was scared now. Toby shifted in the seat, emotions flickering over his narrow face as he repeatedly tried and failed to hold Eliot’s stare.

“You said you wanted to talk.” Eliot finally said, breaking the silence so abruptly that Toby flinched, noticeably. Eliot didn’t bother to hide his smirk. “So talk.”

“What do I get if I do?” Toby asked, something of a whine creeping into his otherwise nice voice. Kid could have been a musician in another life.

What you get is I don’t introduce your nose to the back of your skull.

“Might get you a reduced sentence of some sort,” Bonanno began, and Eliot breathed deep, despite the smell. Assuming charges are pressed. If Nate dies…

Eliot shoved off that blood-bathed thought, clenching his fingers against his biceps and using the pressure to keep focused as Bonanno continued. “I can’t promise you anything more, anything concrete, other than I won’t allow my buddy here to make a xylophone out of your ribs.”

That drew a sharp, startled look from both Eliot and their prisoner, both looking for a smirk, a twitch, something to indicate that the comment had been a joke. Eliot thought he caught a wink, but Pat’s face was stone.

Toby swallowed, hard, and began to speak.

“Right, so, like. ’bout a month ago, some old guy I never saw before showed up at Hiddleston’s. He said his name was Mal Vicent, he was in town for the month, needed some help on a job, an’ he was willing to pay, like….quarter of a million. Per man.” Toby tapped his knuckles on the table, obviously remembering. Eliot thought back, subtracting dates. A month ago would have been about a week after the explosion that killed Jimmy Ford.

Damn. He worked fast.

“I dunno ‘bout you, but hey. I ain’t never seen that kinda money before. So I figured, what the hell, it couldn’t hurt, yanno? Be better than jackin’ cars for stereos an’ shit. So I round up a couple of friends, Mal gives me this cell phone, says when he’s ready for us, he’ll be in touch.”

Whatever happened to face-to-face communication anymore? The cell phone reminded Eliot of Jimmy and the Russians, back when they’d first met the old fixer. It wasn’t the sort of memory he really wanted.

“So, like, Tuesday, I got the call. It’s Mal, he’s found his guy or whatever, we’re supposed to get all dressed up an’ meet him at Joe’s. He’s plannin’ some sort of double cross, wants us to mess him up a bit. And I mean, Mal’s super-old, so…who knows. Maybe the guy took him for his pension or something, right? You’re supposed to respect your elders, I didn’t ask questions. Long story short, he wines and dines our target, shows him some pictures, and next thing I know we’ve got him in some musty old warehouse and we’re…”

Toby’s eyes shifted from the tabletop to Bonanno, bypassing Eliot entirely; as if his brain – in the interest of self-preservation – simply decided Eliot didn’t exist.

“Well. We worked him over pretty bad.” Toby fidgeted again, fingers twitching at the memory. He had the good sense to look ashamed, though Eliot was fairly certain it was at least partially an act. “He…he fought back at first, but Mal drugged him I guess, ‘cause he was actin’ all weird. Kept fallin’ when we weren’t hitting that hard. Until…” He swallowed visibly. “’til he couldn’t really get up anymore. ‘Til he just went down an’ stayed down.”

“And…you thought it was going to end there?” Bonanno asked, almost prompting, voice thick with disbelief. Toby held his gaze for a second before he looked away, slouched in his chair as much as the cuffs would allow.

“I dunno. I thought it might. I mean, Mal hadn’t said anything about killing him at that point, just…beatin’ him up. But he just, Ford…he just stayed there. Like he’d got the wind knocked out of him real bad. An’ then Mal, well, he said he’d double the payout…” Toby’s pale eyes skittered to Eliot’s, pinned beneath the hitter’s glower like a preserved butterfly. “…for anyone willin’ to screw the guy.”

Eliot’s teeth creaked, the tendons in his jaw popping. Toby flinched away from his stare again, but he continued, resolutely.

“Kevin an’ Rob, they didn’t want any of that; said he was tryin’ to rip ‘em off. He still paid them, though, for workin’ Ford over...” Toby said his face suddenly pale, traced with a blush along the cheekbones. Whatever decision he’d made at that offer, he clearly hadn’t contemplated explaining to anyone. “And I said…well. Austin Jenkins was there, so I. I said yes.”

Eliot heard a small sound from behind him, turned to see realization flickering in Bonanno’s eyes. The detective captain knew that name. He turned back around.

Half a million.” Toby’s words were tinged with desperation, justifying actions he may have been regretting; the bragging figure from pub bar long, long gone. “You have any idea how long a guy like me’s gotta work to get that kinda scratch? An’, I mean, like he wasn’t half-bad looking, not my type, but still-”

“Is there a point to this tangent?” Bonanno asked, and his voice was as cool as ice; as cold as the feeling slithering down Eliot’s spine.

“Yeah? I didn’t kill the bastard, that’s gotta count for something!” Toby said, plaintively. “I thought we’d just…have our fun and, like…leave. You can recover from that, they’ve got support groups for it and everything. But we….Vicent, that is, ah, Malcolm, he…he kept changing the rules. Austin…once Austin was…erm.” He squirmed in his seat again. “Once Austin was done with Ford, Mal wanted us to kill him. Smother or strangle or…or something that wouldn’t show up on a burned corpse. You know, wanted us to make sure he was dead before we left.”

Eliot nodded, keeping his face as impassive as he could. He could hear Bonanno shifting behind him, wordless, but still there. As if letting Eliot know he could back down if he had to – or that Bonanno was there to stop him, if need be.

…as if that’s possible.

“But…” Eliot prompted, “you didn’t.”

Toby’s lip curled in a sneer of reflexive derision at the question. “Duh? Course we didn’t, I mean, he’s alive still, ain’t he?”

No thanks to you.

Why didn’t you kill him?”

Silence.

Eliot’s accusing glare didn’t move from Toby’s face. The young man shifted in the chair, the handcuffs attaching him to the table clinking with every move. I would love to think it was because you didn’t want blood on your hands, but. But.  “You thought the fire would take care of it, didn’t you?”

Toby bit his lip, the momentary attitude burned away as his eyes moved from Eliot’s face back to Bonanno. “I didn’t. I didn’t want to. I left right after Mal did, thought I could phone it in anonymously. Maybe. I mean, that’s…Austin wanted…” he trailed off, fidgeting more, and Eliot once again fought the urge to rearrange his face.

“What did Austin want?” Bonnano asked calmly.

“…To see if Ford would struggle for the fire as much as…”

“…as….?”

“Ashehadforthesex.”

Eliot’s vision sparked around the edges, went washed with blood-red and midnight black, and he barely heard Bonnano’s growled voice over his own heartbeat in his ears.

“We’re done here.”

 In the end, Sophie had to talk to Toby, because from that point on any time Eliot even thought about going back in that room, it felt like he had a wolf trying to chew its way out of his soul. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation, and he knew where it would lead him if he let it.

Besides, watching Sophie work through the mirror was almost as satisfying.

*

Sophie watched the whole time Eliot and Bonanno spoke, arms wrapped around her stomach, eyes fixed on Toby’s face. He’s a weasel. A weasel mixed with a chameleon. He wanted to fit in with his group – Austin or whomever; wanted to seem hard-bitten, but on the other hand, he’d showed shame and regret. Both emotions had been fleeting, but they’d been there. His claim that he hadn’t wanted to kill Nate certainly read true as well.

 Eliot came out of the room, face stormy, and he nodded at her once. She brushed her hair back, schooled her face into a neutral expression, and stepped into the room Eliot had just vacated.

The door shut behind her and she prowled close to the table, her teeth bared in a calculated tigress’ grin: no warmth, no friendliness. The young man at the table had just started to relax, but the air of casual disregard burned away as he stared at her.

“Hello, Toby.” She purred, and Toby swallowed hard. In another time, another place, she would have played on that, preyed on that reaction, but…she had seen the pictures; seen the young man with his hands all over Nate, demanding and rough.

And if it weren’t for the deep conviction that Nate would never forgive them for killing in his name, she’d gladly let Eliot back in; let the wolf she could see in his stare sometimes loose.

She continued without preamble, cutting off that train of thought viciously. “You are going to tell me – without arguing, without posturing, and without bloody bargaining – where I can find Kevin Jenkins or Malcolm Vincent. And you are going to tell me now.”

Toby blinked up at her, slouched down in his chair – purely to get further away. “…why? Who are you?” he asked.

“Because.” She said, letting some of the pain she’d kept bottled up to leak into the words; they came out layered with all the possible ways she could continue - all the things she knew and had seen, all the times she’d spent with Nate, both romantically and simply as a friend, all the little things that made him Nate, all the things that made him special, all the things that right now warmed her heart and chilled her soul in a strange dichotomy.  She was gratified to see the sick guilt reappear fire-bright and sparking in Toby’s eyes.

“My name is Sophie Devereaux, and I’m Nate Ford’s lover.”

*

Sophie came out pale, but clutching a scrap of paper with the bar address on it.

“Do you think the bartender from Hiddleston’s warned him?” She asked when Eliot took the paper.

“Do you think it matters?”

Sophie met his eyes for a second, calculating.

“No. No, I don’t.”

*

“Are you freakin’ kidding me?”

Apparently not.”

Austin Jenkins sat at a corner table at the first nightclub they’d gone to. He was a tall man, broad-shouldered with a noble face that didn’t match what Eliot knew of him from Toby and the BPD’s files. The constantly changing shades of neon light danced over his frame and he held his drink close as his eyes roved over the dancing crowds, a sated lion at a watering hole. He wasn’t on the prowl, but he would be, soon.

Calm, Eliot.

Eliot watched him watch the clubbers before he went for the direct approach, working his way through the crowd to slide into the chair opposite. This was nothing like invading Toby’s solo drinking. Austin didn’t jump, wasn’t startled by his sudden appearance. He just glanced at Eliot, expression bright and curious, before the look turned into something more. 

“Well, hello there,” he said, calmly, eying Eliot from head to toe, clearly appraising him as openly as the bartender at Hiddleston’s had leered at Sophie. “Can I help you?”

“So, I hear you’re somethin’ of a go-to guy around these parts.” The Boston Police Department had his name as a person of interest in half a dozen assault cases, an enforcer connected to pimps and drug dealers and a variety of other undesirables, but like Malcolm, there was nothing concrete.

“Eh.” Austin gave a one-shouldered shrug, tossing his head. “Depends on what you’re looking for. Cars, drugs, any of that, and I’m afraid you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Let him know you’re thinking about people,” Sophie suggested, and Eliot could hear the disgust in her voice. He kept the retorted I know what I’m doing to himself.

“I’m thinking more of a…personal problem,” he said, watching Austin take a sip of his drink. “Dealing with…employee overconfidence. Arrogance. Attitudes. That sort of thing.”

Austin blinked, and the curiosity from earlier grew strong on his face. “Never woulda taken you for a pimp,” he said, voice mildly impressed. “Your problem - guy or girl?” He asked, licking the edge of his glass, and Eliot bit back a protective growl. 

“Guy.” He said, truthfully; thinking of Malcolm and his photos, about him leaving Nate to incompetent street thugs. He and Austin were having two entirely different conversations, he knew, and that was the only way he could keep himself sitting, instead of launching himself across the table at the lounging, muscle-bound man.

“Easy enough. Your guy, he starts gettin’ an attitude, just get him on his belly,” Austin offered, voice mild, conversational, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, somehow clueless to the wildfire he was playing with. Sophie murmured something, but Eliot didn’t hear it over Austin’s continued advice. “Don’t think about whether or not you swing that way, it’s all just a powerplay, you know? You’ve got to show him you know his place. People tend to shut up when you’ve got their legs spread.”

“Yeah?” Eliot drawled back, his eyes chips of blue ice, solidified fury in human form. “Roofies and duct tape will do that to a guy.”

Austin sighed, lightly, meeting Eliot’s stare for the first time since the hitter sat down. He didn’t look surprised.  “…Ah. You’d be Ford’s lapdog, then.”

“Yeah. I guess I would be.” He was too angry to care about the inaccurate assessment.

“Can’t say I blame you.” Austin took another sip of his drink, tossing his head back, a gleam in his amber eyes. “He’s got a nice lap. Got a nice everything.” He cocked his head, a snake-like grin splitting his face. “He ever let you touch him?”

He’s trying to rattle you,” Sophie said, voice a little shaky in his ear.

Yeah, well, it’s kinda working.

“Can’t imagine he did,” Austin said after a moment, when it became evident that Eliot wasn’t going to reply. “Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been begging for it like he did. I’ve never had the pleasure of working with someone so…so needy. All that whining, all that whimpering…” He shivered slightly, and Sophie made another soft, disgusted noise in Eliot’s ear. “My only regret is I didn’t put that mouth of his to better use, you know?”

Austin’s glass shattered when Eliot’s fist hit it on its way to Austin’s face. The big man caught Eliot’s punch with a surprised grunt, rocking back in his seat just a bit.

“Oh, struck a nerve? Suppose you don’t want to hear about how he begged, eh?” Eliot twisted his hand, pulling his fingers free of Austin’s grip, barely controlling the feelings coursing through him. Austin chuckled, brushing glass shards off of his pants. “Because he did beg. Begged and cried, and, well. Once he finally shut himself up, I thought he was about to bite through his own arm, honestly…” Austin shook his head. “All this fuss over a little fucking. I swear, if-”

“You just like the sound of your own damn voice, don’t you?” Eliot snapped.

Austin shrugged. “I liked the sound of his better.”

Why?”

“Well, because once he started crying-” Eliot jerked his earbud out, held it in his fist, muffling Austin’s words. Sophie didn’t need to hear more of this. “-it had this adorable little hitching sound, all keening, like he couldn’t even catch his breath….”

“No.” Eliot said, shortly, combing his hand through his hair. “You misunderstood the question. Why are you sitting there, talking to me? Why aren’t you in some safehouse counting your money?”

“Maybe ‘cuz I like it better out here? Maybe I get off on you all righteously indignant an’ in pain?” Austin smirked. “Or maybe because I know I don’t have any reason to hide. You can’t even find Malcolm, or you wouldn’t be here. He’s who you’re after, the ‘mastermind’ of this whole little scheme - can’t rest unless you take him out, right? Well. I ain’t sayin’ jack.” He pantomimed locking his lips, throwing away the key.

“Oh, we’ll find him,” Eliot said, voice hard and harsh. “Whether or not you help. But helping us might just help you.”

“Mmm, pass. I’ll stay here, if it’s all the same to you. Maybe get a new drink.” Austin said, lazily as glanced towards the bar. “You’ve not got any proof that’ll keep me in jail, or put Mal in jail or anything. Hell, I don’t think you can’t even get me for this, it’s my word against yours, and I promise you my record’s still a hell of a lot cleaner than yours is.”

“Do I look like I care?” Eliot snarled, pushing his hair back out of his eyes and climbing to his feet. Austin gave him a dismissive glance before he sneered.

“It’s is all just hearsay. None of it’ll stand up in court.”

Eliot ignored the obvious comments he could make there about Bonanno and the kit, and went for the kill instead, head tilted to the side.

“…court?”

He struck fast. The table wobbled when he vaulted onto it, leading foot aimed at Austin’s head. Austin barely blocked the kick that would have broken his jaw, hand closing tight around Eliot’s boot as he fell back. Eliot caught himself on the edge of the table, suspended between its glass top and Austin’s bulk.

The enforcer gave Eliot’s leg a vicious twist that probably would have snapped his ankle –

If Eliot’s foot had still been in his boot.

If Eliot had stayed in place.

If Eliot wasn’t already lunging for Austin again, ducking low. 

If.

Austin’s look of disbelief was almost comical. He flung the empty boot at Eliot’s face, but the hitter ducked it, caught it by the laces and swung the steel-toed footwear right back at Austin with all the force he could muster. The boot smacked against Austin’s teeth – hard enough that when the muscle-bound man straightened up, he was spitting blood.

Eliot didn’t pause, his fist ramming into Austin’s jaw, his elbow following through as he spun to kick the enforcer’s knees out from under him. Austin landed hard, letting out a yelp when Eliot’s trajectory brought him down on Austin’s legs, one knee ramming the middle of the larger man’s back, the other going for the enforcer’s long hair.

Austin went down flat of his own volition, pulling Eliot off-balance; he had to let go, hurriedly, to avoid bashing his face into the marble floor. He rolled back to his feet just in time to dive beneath the chair Austin picked up and swung at his head.

The metal legs skipped over the tabletop instead, shattering the glass into a thousand shards in a cacophony of sound that was still barely audible over the constant bass of the dance music. Austin let it go and it barely missed the nearest group of dancers –

Who, like the rest of the nightclub, were suddenly catching on to the fact that they didn’t want to be there anymore, if the sudden stillness was any indication.

Eliot hung back, crouched, one hand at ready, the other still clutching the boot’s laces. Austin shook his head, looking vaguely dazed as he staggered backwards. Eliot took a cautious step forward, careful not to move too close to the scattered glass. Austin’s legs faltered, the big man falling to his knees.

Eliot prowled closer, still wary. “Look familiar?” He growled, dimly aware that the music had stopped; that he could hear frantic voices behind the roaring in his ears. “Oh, wait, no, that’s right. You’re never the one on his knees.”

 “Nah,” the enforcer replied, breathless, “I leave that for guys like Ford, since they look so pretty that way.” One of Austin’s hands closed around a section of the glass from the table as he raised his head. “You’d look awful nice kneelin’, though.”

Austin propelled himself to his feet, lunging toward Eliot, slashing with his makeshift knife. Eliot shook glass shards out of his hair, felt the sting of a cut at his temple, and swung the boot around again. It missed Austin’s hand, the laces wrapping around his wrist instead, almost like a bola. Eliot yanked on the other end, pulling Austin’s hand up and out as he spun the opposite direction again, his free hand slamming hard against the back of Austin’s neck.

Between Eliot pulling, Eliot’s punch and his own lunge, Austin had no way of stopping before he ran into the wall, hard and face first. He staggered backwards, and then simply fell back with a low moan, blood dripping from his lips. Eliot moved close enough to stomp his booted foot down on Austin’s wrist until he dropped the knife.

“I don’t kneel,” he snarled, and Austin’s eyes fluttered open. He laughed, and Eliot’s eyes narrowed.

“It doesn’t matter,” the enforcer slurred, reaching up to touch his lips, as if reassuring himself he still had some teeth. “You’ve got no way…no chance of gettin’ to Mal before he finishes the job.” His bloody smirk melted, reformed itself into an almost-beatific smile at Eliot’s look. “What, you thought he was just going to hang around and wait for Nate to wake up or die on his own? Naw. I mean…I mean….” He dropped his hand, waved it to indicate the nightclub around them. “Y’…y’ wanted to know why I’m talkin’ to ya?”

Eliot gave a sharp nod, wiping blood from his temple and digging his earbud from the pocket of his jeans.

“Because if I was here talking to you…you were here talking to me.”

It took a moment for Eliot’s brain to translate that statement, but when it did he was on the move instantly. “Sophie,” he barked, his foot slamming against Austin’s head with just the right amount of force to knock him out without bashing in his skull, “Sophie, get to the car, now. I know where Malcolm is.”

He didn’t even stop to untangle his shoe before charging through the crowd, ducking past the bouncer easily enough and pelting down the stairs. Bonanno and a crowd of uniforms passed him on their way up, summoned – no doubt – by Sophie. The detective took one look at Eliot and his eyes went wide. Eliot called back as he tore out of sight,

“Don’t worry, Pat, you should see the other guy.”

*

Pushing farther and farther ,

You need someone, you need anyone

To show you yourself from deeper within;

And if only someone could forgive you
For all that's been done and said,

But maybe it's too late to change

And nobody cares anymore.

*

The phone rings against Nate’s ear as he sprawls in his armchair, watching Sam and the girl play the world’s most unorthodox game of Monopoly ever. He hasn’t been in the room long enough to learn the rules, but he can’t help but notice that the houses have been replaced with what looks like half of Maggie’s jewelry box, and the bank is conspicuously empty.

It’s Jimmy. Leave a message.

He just hangs up this time. He’s already left four messages. He’ll draw the line at this fifth. Except for the fact that he dials again, going over the number by memory, listens to it ring.

Again.

The sound of a car pulling up in front of the house wafts through the window, and Sam’s on his feet in an instant, snagging his baseball cap from the back of the chair, his flip-flops from the foot of the stairs.

“That’s Danny, I gotta go!”

Nate frowns at the sound of “It’s Jimmy, leave-” and hangs up again, looking at his son.

“Where are you off to this time?”

“Swimming!”  Sam grins, and it makes his eyes look like stars, brilliant blue and shining bright. “His cousin’s got this pool and it’s got a high-dive and a slide and a basketball net and everything.” He grabs the backpack from the end of the couch, slings it over his shoulder. “It’s so cool and amazing and and and…”

“And don’t forget your sunscreen.”

Sam ducks down to bop the brim of his hat on Nate’s hair, complete with the duck-noise Nate always used to make when Sam was little; throws a wave to the girl sitting on her heels watching, and darts out the door. The girl waits for the door to slam before she slowly starts taking the money from Sam’s side of the board, adding it to her own.

He doesn’t question it; doesn’t question anything she does anymore. He’ll never get an answer. He’s accepted that by now. Instead, he dials Jimmy’s number again.

This time, he gets a busy signal.

"He's a sweet kid,” the girl finally says without looking up. “You must be proud."

"I am.” Nate replies, looking at all the pictures on the TV center, hanging on the walls. Family pictures, from the day Sam was born and on - birthday parties, vacations. First Christmas, first day of school, first Communion. First ballgame, three years old and sitting on Jimmy’s knees, leaning so far forward over the railing that he remembers reaching out to bring him back. Remembers Jimmy pushing his hands away, reassuring: I won’t let him fall. Never let you, did I?  

We are."

The girl’s gaze follows his to the pictures. "But...Nate. What year was he born?"

"...'98? He-"

"And what year is it now?"

"2012."

"And...how old is he?"

Nate answers instantly, instinctively, doesn't have to think. Knew it as well as he knows his own birthday. "He's eight..."

It only takes a second for his words and the math to catch up to the rest of him. The girl blinks at him, something like sadness in her laser-bright stare.

"I. I'll just...let you think about that for a bit. Ok?"

*

Her words stay with Nate the rest of the day and long into the evening, long after Maggie’s given up on motivating him to work on the hallway; long after he’s given up on trying Jimmy’s phone for the twentieth time; long after Sam’s home, glowing with sunburn and bursting with stories.

“Nate, could you remind Sam that even Aquaman has chores?” Maggie asks him as he heads upstairs later, the girl’s words still bouncing around his head. “They’re sending the garbage trucks around early tomorrow, something about road work…”

He nods and continues up the stairs, pausing at the top to call down the hall.

 “Sam?”

The answer doesn’t come, and so he says it again as he steps into the bedroom. “Sam, bud, your mom wanted me to remind you to take out…”

The words die in his throat in a dull throb of pain, a rushing swell of nausea. He staggers, hand against the wall, trembling and trembling and trembling under the sudden sensation of someone else’s voice saying those words, an echoed voice overlaying his own.

“Dad?”

He can’t answer. There’s something in his mouth that tickles the back of his tongue, gagging him and holding him silent. He can’t choke back the cough as Sam jumps off his bed, charging down the hall and yelling at the top of his lungs.

 “Mom! Mom!”

He can’t stop coughing, here in Sam’s room, down on his hands and knees, pain and terror and disorientation colliding deep in his stomach and working its way through him. He lets out a harsh heave, almost retching – and spits out a crisp hundred dollar bill.

What the hell. He reaches out to touch it, fingers touching paper that catches on his calluses. How…?


“Nate?” Maggie’s voice is soft, her touch on his shoulder even softer, but he jerks away anyway, as if startled. As if shocked. “What’s wrong?”

He doesn’t know what’s wrong, and he shrugs as he straightens up, trying on a too-small, too-tight smile, the damp bill clutched tight in his hand, hidden from view. He doesn’t know what any of this means, and so he simply says, in a voice that almost hurts his throat, “Nothing.”

She doesn’t believe him, and he can tell, but he can’t put his sudden terror into words, not with her standing there, Sam clinging to her arm.

He tries to bottle the terror down, tries to make the rest of the evening as normal as humanly possible, but even as he’s getting ready for bed, he still can’t shake the conviction that if he lifted up his shirt there’d be dark bruises like fingerprints up and down his hips.


Chapter Text

V

Here I am and I stand so tall, just the way I'm supposed to be.
But you're on to me and all over me.

You loved me 'cause I'm fragile when I thought that I was strong.
But you touch me for a little while and all my fragile strength is gone.

*


The drive back was calm. The thief barely spoke, almost dozing. The night felt like it was going to take forever. Hardison tried not to yawn as he pulled Lucille into the hospital’s parking garage.

“Feel like I could sleep for a week,” he confessed as Parker stirred; but she just smirked, jumping out almost before he’d hit the brakes. “Woman! Stop that!”

“That’s what you get for not letting me drive!” She was still waiting when he shoved the van into park. “If you’d just let me drive…”

“Sure, sure, next time. Maybe. When I feel like cryin’ myself to sleep. ” He jerked his thumb towards the lobby, shutting the door behind her. “I’mma go get some coffee,” he said, “You want anything?”

Parker cocked her head like a puppy, clearly thinking about it before she nodded firmly, once, with a bright, devilish smile.

“Hot chocolate. Extra large.”

She disappeared through the service doors in a swish of blond hair. Hardison watched her go, relishing the feel of being back on semi-even footing in the undercurrent of tensions that weren’t going to just go away. 

“A’ight, a’ight, I guess I can say I totally deserved that.”

The cafeteria was deserted at this early hour; grates pulled down over the café, but he could still get to the vending machine that proclaimed HOT BEVERAGES. Hardison pulled a handful of Canadian quarters out of his pocket, started feeding them into the drink machine, stifling a yawn as he waited for the coffee cup to fill. He started sorting out the rest of the money, and uncovered his ear-bud under a gum wrapper and an arcade token. He slid it into place.

“Now, let’s see how all of y’all’s night went…”

Hardison.” Eliot’s growl was loud and strident in his ear. “I’ve been trying your cell phone for the last ten minutes! Where are you?” Hardison glanced at his messenger bag with a pang of guilt. He’d been too happy, too relieved; he’d completely forgot to call or text or...anything.  

“I’m at the hospital, I found Par-”

Sophie’s voice interrupted, “Who’s with Nate?” She sounded even more worried, and Hardison pulled away from the machine, feeling the bottom dropping out of his stomach.


“N-no one, the uniform, remember, we just…damn it, Parker!” Coffee forgotten, Hardison spun on his heel, making a mad dash for the stairs, Eliot’s voice ringing needlessly loud in his ears.

“Hardison, get in there, now!”

“Alright, alright, I’m gettin’, I’m gettin’, what’s goin’ on?” He took the stairs three at a time, his bag smacking against his leg with every leap.

Eliot growled again. “I’ll tell you when we get there! Just move!”

The door hung half-open when Hardison skidded to a stop outside it, breathless from the stairs. He crossed his fingers and leaned his head in the door to stare at the scene within. The thief stood next to the bed, one hand held up, a lighter flickering in her fingers. She stood face to face with an old man, less than a foot away, his clothes dripping with what certainly looked (and smelled) like medicinal alcohol.

“Eliot, he’s already here…”

Malcolm Vicent had one bony hand closed around Nate’s IV tube, the other held a syringe. The needle’s tip was sunk into the plastic, but the syringe was still full. The old man stood frozen in place, his grey eyes fixed only on Parker standing a foot away, though they flickered for just a second. “Come on in, kiddo,” he said, raising his voice; sarcastic and measured, full of mockery. “The more the merrier.”

Stall him. Whatever he’s doing, keep him talking. You hear me? And don’t let Parker do anything stupid.”

“Yeh, uh, yessir.” Hardison stepped further into the room, hands held wide, harmless at his side, eyes fixed on the syringe. The liquid inside was dusky, opalescent, and somehow he didn’t think whatever it was would be compatible with Nate’s body. Parker didn’t move; the lighter flickering in her ash-darkened fingers.

“Looks like we’re stuck,” Malcolm said, calmly.

“I guess we are.” Parker replied, just as calm.

“You drop that lighter,” Mal went on, jerking his chin at the thief, “I will push this plunger. I won’t die that fast. I’ll take him with me, and you know it.”

“You know,” Parker growled back, biting off each word, as if they tasted bad. “I guessed that, somehow. But, see, same deal goes for me. You push that plunger, I will drop this lighter.” Hardison slid further into the room, moving to Parker’s side as carefully as he could. “Pretty sure burning to death sucks.”

“I’m not entirely surprised, my dear,” Malcolm said mildly. “Hence, stuck. We’re at an impasse, you could say; a Mexican standoff – or is that not politically correct anymore?” He looked down at Nate, a small smile playing on his narrow lips. “He grew up decent, anyways.” he said, lightly. Fondly. The look on his face sent chills down Hardison’s spine. “He always was a good kid. Always had the right kinds of friends.”

He grinned at Hardison, then, and the hacker was reminded of nothing more than that dragon he’d thought of earlier. There was something truly, truly skeevy about the old man.

“The thing about having the right kinds of friends, though, is they didn’t save him then, and I’m not entirely sure they’ll save him now.”

“You can’t kill him here,” Hardison said, not rising to the taunt. “This is a hospital, you’ve got witnesses…all the medical exams…they’ll know you did it.”

“But will I have witnesses?” Malcolm murmured, tilting his head, sizing them both up. Parker’s hand trembled on the lighter at the look, and Hardison felt his skin crawl. “You’ve got friends, I’ve got friends too. Which ones will get here first?”

“But that still leaves Nate. The hospital knows he’s here, and patients…patients don’t just disappear.”

“Almost there, Hardison, almost there…

“No, but they do die of liver failure or heart attacks or….” Malcolm shifted the needle, and Hardison poised to grab it, damn the consequences. Parker’s lighter faltered, and Hardison stepped over the alcohol-scented smelling puddle on the floor. “You two could just…disappear.”

“Parker,” Hardison said, reaching out a hand – she pulled hers back, still clutching the lighter, her eyes as wide as a deer in the headlights. “Let me have the lighter.” If Eliot said something like that, he was just around the corner. He would be here before Malcolm’s men - if Malcolm’s men still existed in this realm of existence anymore.

“Alec…” Parker looked at him. Her eyes were wet, shining too brightly again. He swallowed, pulling closer to her. “Alec, I want…he can’t…” She blinked her eyes furiously. “He doesn’t deserve to be alive.” Malcolm went very still again. Hardison flinched.

“No, Parker…Parker, he…he needs to stay alive. You talk like that…well. You’re not exactly motivating him to not inject…whatever that is. He wants to stay alive. He’s not gonna push that plunger until he’s damn sure he’s got an exit strategy.”

Malcolm raised his eyebrows, but didn’t loosen his grip on the needle. “Are you certain of that?”

“Yeah, I am,” Hardison retorted, “because if you do push it, I’ll let her light you up like a campfire.” His eyes narrowed. “If I don’t do it my damn self, thank you very much.” He looked back at Parker, reaching out to brush his fingers over Parker’s ashy chin. “Come on, let me have the lighter.”

“B-but…”

“He’s caused you a lot of pain. Caused all of us a lot of pain. Do you really want him to cause more pain?”

Hardison, what’s going on?

“You don’t have to kill him.” He couldn’t answer. He’d heard a conversation like this down in the batcave that he wasn’t allowed to keep, and hoped rather strongly, that Parker would just listen. “You know that, right?”

“But I want to!” Parker insisted, letting the flame flicker. “Wanted to. Still want to. I think.”

“No, P-parker, don’t you get it? He’s not worth your pain. Nate needs you around, remember? How do you think Nate will feel if you kill for him? He didn’t kill Dubenich or Latimer…”

“No, but I can’t talk him into killing himself, either!” Parker almost rounded on him, her eyes bright.

Hardison raised his hands soothingly, attention divided between Malcolm and Parker. “You told me you didn’t need another Nate. Neither do we. Neither does he.”

Malcolm had the gall to roll his eyes. “This is all very enlightening, but-”

The door slammed open. Parker jumped, startled, and dropped the still-lit lighter. Hardison dove to catch it; Mal jumped at the same time, losing his grip on the syringe. It fell to the floor – and Parker burst into motion.

“Parker, no, don’t-”

Parker’s closed fist slammed into Mal’s jaw. The old man went staggering backward, smacking his head on the bedframe of the extra bed. He collapsed with a groan, and Parker stood over him, rubbing her knuckles on her jeans.

“He’s my friend,” she sneered down at him. “I stole him. You’re not allowed to steal him back.

Malcolm just looked up at her in utter bewilderment before his eyes slipped closed.

*

The sight of Malcolm Vicent being led away in handcuffs was one of the most encouraging things Sophie had seen in days. Eliot and Hardison joined her outside the door to watch the uniformed police officers haul the horrible old man down the stairs.

“Job well done,” Hardison said, softly. “I mean, we put away a mid-level crime lord, a couple of rapists, couple’a no-good heavies…” The hacker bounced a little on his heels. “Made the streets just that tiny bit safer, right?”

Sophie turned so she could look in the open door of Nate’s room. Parker sat on the edge of Nate’s bed, talking so low that she couldn’t hear a word. “We did,” she replied, blinking away the sudden sting in her eyes, “but…at what cost?”

“Heyyy,” Hardison moved in front of her, ducking down – just a little bit – to meet her eyes. “Don’t go talkin’ like that, Sophie. Nate’s gonna wake up. There’ve been reports of, like, people in comas for years-

“That’s your idea of a pep talk?” Eliot interrupted with a growl. “Pep talks are supposed to be encouraging.

Hardison gave Eliot the evil eye; as calm as Sophie had ever seen him. Eliot lapsed, grumbling, back into his silence.  “As I was sayin’, they’ve been in comas for a lot longer than Nate an’ they’ve been okay when they woke up . . . he’s gonna be alright.”

Alright and awake are two very different things.

Bonanno appeared up the stairs, alone. The three of them looked at each other before Eliot stepped forward, speaking over Hardison’s shoulder. “What?”

Sophie fought the rush of déjà vu at the conversation’s start. Bonanno tucked his hands in his pockets and gave a sort-of shrug.

“I came by to check on Nate. That’s…about all.” Another half-shrug. “Oh, and to make sure that Austin Jenkins’ guards know they’re not to leave his room. Ever.” The emphasis made sense in light of the uniform being gone when they’d arrived.

“And…also to say thank you. Hardison’s right. You guys did good. We’ve had an eye on Jenkins for months.”

Eliot draped his arm over Bonanno’s shoulders.

“So,” the hitter said, slowly, “On that note…don’t suppose you can…” He hissed in a breath. “Oh, I don’t know. Make sure you…lose anything that might come up about Parker’s little…” He snapped his fingers, unable to find the word he was looking for. Sophie was about to say rampage when Hardison supplied,

“Trogdor the Burninator impersonation?”

“You got us Jenkins. And…” Bonanno grimaced. “With the, ah. The DNA from the kit…”

Well. Hardison’s entire stance changed as Sophie found herself rubbing at her eyes again. That’s sobering.

“Plus…” Bonanno leaned so he could look through the door. “Your girl there – she does good work. Nobody’s found anything yet but a bunch of really burnt cars. If it was anyone else-” and here he looked at each of them pointedly in turn, “-Or if it ever happens again, well. I’ll be just a little bit more inclined to look that little bit harder.”

“You’ll let us know, though, if anything ever comes up?”

“Of course.”

“Thanks, Pat.”

“Don’t mention it. That’s just…one less I owe you now.”

“Wha-”

“I said don’t mention it.”

*

The sharp smell of the medicinal alcohol still filled the air, but the room felt bigger now. Less claustrophobic, with the curtains open, the lights from the rest of the hospital and the city shining through like an electric version of the dawn that still lay an hour away.

Parker sat on the edge of Nate’s bed, listening to the others talking out in the hallway. It felt…close to correct; closer than things had been all week, but it still wasn’t fixed. Nate was still in the bed, stiller and calmer than he had any right to be.

“Nate, I…”

What was she supposed to say? If this was a fairy tale, she could just drag Sophie in here and make them kiss and everything would be ok (if not for the very large part of her that thought that the whole concept of smooching someone when they were asleep was somewhat creepy; this was a discussion she’d had before with Hardison, and he’d agreed on that point, at least). But it wasn’t a fairy tale. There was no simple slay-the-dragon-and-everything-will-be-ok solution. They were going to have to be patient. Sit it out.

And I’ve never been good at being patient.

“Nate, I…I’m sorry. I’m sorry this happened to you. I’m sorry you felt like you had to protect me. You worry so much about all of us, and I’m…I know it’s been three years but I’m still getting used to having people to worry about.” She paused, took a peek at the bed. He still hadn’t moved.

Damn it, Nate!

“I’m not used to having people protect me.”

She could hear Bonanno’s voice in the hall now; and so she kept her eyes on the doorway, just in case he came in, badge flashing. Of course, to do so he’d have to get past Eliot (which was laughable) and Hardison (which seemed more likely, but Hardison was awfully determined and assertive and stuff lately, so who knew), and…it just didn’t seem very likely at all.

“Do I have to say sorry for wanting to set Malcolm on fire?”

There was no response.

This time, she took that to mean no.

*

Oily marks appear on walls
Where pleasure moments hung before.
The takeover, the sweeping insensitivity of this
still life.

Hide and seek.
Trains and sewing machines.

(Oh, you won't catch me around here)
Blood and tears,
They were here first.

*


The hundred-dollar bill burns a hole in his pocket all the next morning.

Thinking about it makes his head feel weird, like there’s something he’s forgotten, something on the tip of his tongue just waiting to be said, and so he tries not to think about it, tries to pass it off to the girl when she shows up on the back deck while he and Maggie eat breakfast. She ignores it, reaching out instead to help herself to the cheerios.

“Can you pass the milk?” She asks, brightly, and Nate does so, shoving the jug past Maggie – who gasps, and grabs his arm.

“Nate! What…?”

There’s a bruise on the inside of his forearm. It looks several days old: purple and green and yellowing around the edges, but a bright, angry red at the epicenter, with little indentations that almost look like…

Are those teeth marks?

“What the hell.” Maggie’s voice is suddenly flat. “Who on earth bit you?”

He traces suddenly shaky fingertips over the livid mark, tasting – for just a second – blood in his mouth, like copper pennies on his lips. He’s almost certain the answer to that question is “I did,” but he shakes his head and the sensation vanishes.

“I don’t…I don’t know,” he confesses. “I just…just noticed it now.” He doesn’t like this not knowing, doesn’t like it any more than he likes the bill from last night, or the bruises on the sides of his stomach, marching down his ribs.

“Do you think you should see a doctor? That looks pretty bad…” the girl chimes in, leaning over to peer at the bite, but not – to Nate’s relief – to poke at it.

“No, no doctor, I’ll just…I’ll wash it, keep an eye on it, and it’ll be fine. Really.” He pours himself a glass of orange juice, looking for a way to change the subject.

He doesn’t have to.

“How’s the party coming?” The young woman breaks the silence, talking around a mouthful of her cereal. “It’s…tomorrow, right?”

Nate ducks his head against Maggie’s pointed glance as his wife answers, “Yes, that’d be tomorrow. How’d you know about it?”

“Oh, Sam was talking the other day. I think he’s excited, at least!” That makes one of us. Sam had volunteered, way back at the first mention of Maggie’s party, to be a waiter. They’d promised he could wear one of Nate’s suit jackets and ties, and he’d been wild with the idea of inviting friends to be other wait staff and make sure they were paid and…

They’d put the kibosh on that idea pretty darn quick.

“Speaking of which – where is Sam?”

Maggie’s return look practically drips with skepticism. “Tommy came over before you woke up, he and Sam are going to help Tommy’s dad paint the fence for scouts. He’s taking them to the movies after. You gave him permission last Friday, remember?”

He doesn’t remember, and he’s about to say as much, when Maggie catches his hand, forces his arm back to the table. “Are you sure you won’t go to the doctor? Human bites are worse than dog bites, sometimes…”

He jerks his hand away - suddenly uncomfortable with the contact but not wanting to admit it- and pushes his chair away from the table. “I’m not going to the doctor.”

He stalks into the house, letting the screen door slam behind him.

It doesn’t drown out Maggie’s mutter.

“That’s not the only thing you’re not doing…”

*

“What time’s Sam supposed to come home?”

The girl finds him again, hours later, staring up at the door. The metal looks the same, clashes just the same as it always had with the wallpaper, but something about the big entrance makes his stomach feel that same weird twinge as the bite-mark and the money.

He doesn’t want to touch the thing.

Maybe if I put up a curtain rod she’ll forget that it’s there.  They have a couple replica tapestries that might look nice in the hallway, might hide the door well enough to placate his wife.

“I don’t know,” he said, shortly, one hand worrying at the bill tucked away. “What’s with your infatuation, anyway? Every time you’re here, you’re either following me around or following him around. Don’t you have anyplace better to be?”

“Kinda.” The girl sounds pained at the confession, and he rounds on her, relieved to turn his back on the door.

“So why are you still here, then? It’s not that interesting, it’s not that fascinating, we’re a average, normal, ordinary family and we’re going to stay that way.”

“Are you?” The girl says, grimly, reaching out to take his hand.

He tries to flinch away, but she lifts it easily enough; her grip surprisingly strong. And, as he watches, red blossoms at the tip of his finger, as if someone slid a needle in too roughly, too deep, with no idea of what they were doing. The straight track is soon joined by its twin, and when the young woman lets him go he just stares at his hand, uncomprehending.

It’s a struggle to get the words out.

“Y-yes. We are.”

“Then…you don’t need me here.”

He doesn’t hear her steps when she leaves.

*

“You talked to Jimmy, right?” Nate asks Maggie when she comes to bed. Sam phoned earlier to let them know he was spending the night at Tommy’s now, somewhere between the thirty-fifth and fortieth time he tried to contact his father. “He’s still planning on coming tomorrow, right?”

“Far as I know,” is Maggie’s reply as she slides beneath the covers. It’s too hot for Nate to consider that, so he just lies on top of the blankets, watching Maggie snuggle in tight. Her reply did very little to reassure him. Every time he called today, the line had been busy. The last time it hadn’t even rung. It had gone straight to Jimmy’s voicemail.

“Good.” He can’t shake the feeling he’s left something unsaid to Jimmy and Maggie alike, but he lays there in the darkness, listening to every breath.

“Love you, Maggie.”

The only response is a light snore, and soon even that fades.

And Nate drifts off; half convinced that if he opens his eyes, he’ll be alone.

Chapter Text

VI


Forget what we're told
Before we get too old,
Show me a garden that's bursting into life.

Let's waste time

Chasing cars
Around our heads -

I need your grace

To remind me
To find my own.


*

Nate still hadn’t stirred four days later.

The team tore down all the stuff they’d left scattered through the hospital; cleaned up the conference room, stopped the computer from lying about the room being used. Scrubbed the security tapes just in case, wiped the vents for fingerprints. Took turns making lunch runs, picking up dinner or coffee or new DVDs, library books, checking their various P.O. boxes for new clients - anything to pass the time, give them something to look at that wasn’t white walls and machinery and each other.

The table in Nate’s room held a veritable zoo of animals – one from each time Parker had needed a break from the curtained room and their silent friend. The others had added things slowly. A pile of books from Eliot, a new looking DS and a stack of games that Hardison had picked up somewhere. An old, beat-up Winnie the Pooh that Sophie refused to explain. Flowers and shiny rocks and newspapers. They were, after all, thieves. Thieves collected things, even if it was just to trade them in for favors or pass them off as bribes.

Maybe they were trying to bribe Nate back from wherever he was right now. None of them were certain - they didn’t usually speak in passing.

They were running out of things to say.

*

Eliot was the only one who talked to Bonanno when he came by to check up on them, the only one the cop told anything to – but he turned right back around and told them all, so that was okay.

Malcolm’s case, it seemed, was likely to be difficult, the detective kept warning them, if it went to court at all. Toby and Austin would be easy – D.N.A. was hard to argue with, after all, but Malcolm had kept his hands clean. Even their search of his hotel room had turned up absolutely nothing.

“We can get him on attempted murder for what he tried to do here,” he said, this time. “If…if Hardison and Parker are willing to testify…”

And there was part of the problem. Most of their cases weren’t the sort that went to court – they were the kind where rich men made plea bargains and went to jail much poorer men. They didn’t have to be involved in the sentencing. Or the trial. Or anything like that.

“You should stick around, regardless,” Bonanno continued; the forced humor in his tone almost painful to hear.  “You did good. Unorthodox, but good. If any of you ever want a new job…”

Eliot just gave him a blank stare.

“You could be consultants?” Bonanno tried again.

“Goodbye, Pat,” Eliot growled. “We’ll call you if anything changes.”

*

But nothing did.

The doctors remained cautious, the team remained stir-crazy.

Parker finished her nineteenth animal rescuing run, clutching a tiny elephant this time, only to return to a room empty of anyone but Nate.

Enough is enough!

She shoved the little elephant in her pocket, turned on her heel and stalked down to the café. Hardison sat sprawled at a corner table, typing away on his computer. She peered over his shoulder – frowned at the search terms. Coma patient. Smoke inhalation and rape victim and psychosomatic were scrawled on the notepad beneath his hand. She growled, grabbed the pen from his fingers with one hand, his computer with the other, slapping it shut.

“Woman!” He barked, “Give that back!”

“Man!” She snapped back, “no.” She tucked the laptop under her arm and stomped out of the cafeteria, well aware of the eyes of all the other, normal people on her. She ignored them as she stormed towards the door.

“Parker, what has gotten into you?” Hardison asked as he jogged after her, trying to reach out and reclaim the laptop. She pulled it away, scowling still.

All of you,” she snapped back, storming out the door and across the street without bothering to check the traffic. Hardison almost followed her, but had to scramble to a stop when the light changed. By the time he was able to cross, she was halfway up the fire escape of the Outpatient building. She could hear him clomping and stomping up after her, but kept going until the fire escape ended and she could see the peaceful garden on the roof, see the city spreading out below them.

And Eliot, doing some sort of elaborate, martial arts dance thing in middle of a patch of grass beneath the still-bare-branched trees, his eyes closed and his movements fluid. She eyed him for a second, pulled the elephant out of her pocket. She gently patted its grey plush head and – dimly aware of Hardison panting behind her – chucked it at Eliot’s head as hard as she could.

His eyes snapped open when it bounced off to land tusk-down in the grass.

“Parker, what the hell-

“You!” She yelled, advancing on him enough to poke a finger in the middle of his chest. Eliot looked to Hardison for a second, confused, and Parker grabbed a handful of Hardison’s shirt, dragging him close for good measure. “And him! You are coming back with me and you are going to help me get Sophie. Now.”

Her tone, she was certain, left absolutely no room for argument. She grabbed Eliot’s hand, and dragged both of them towards the fire escape. They balked as one man and she spun, eyes flashing dangerously, just to see Eliot retrieving the poor flung elephant.

“Do you think,” Hardison said, timidly, “We could take the elevator?”

She clacked her teeth together, eyed the pleading expression on his still-sweet face, noted the way Eliot carefully brushed the grass off the elephant’s head with the leg of his jeans. Mollified, she nodded, once.

“Alright. I guess.”

But she kept her hold on them anyways, just in case.

*

Sophie was back in the Ellis building, in the Chapel.

Parker wasn’t entirely sure what she was looking for, but the older woman sat perfectly still in the back row of chairs, her eyes fixed on the sapphire-blue stained-glass window, something dangling, gleaming, in her hand. Parker gave it an appraising glance - saint medallion; 14 karat gold, no resale value – and dismissed it to pay more attention to the grifter, who looked back when they entered.

She almost looked about to laugh when she saw them.

“What is it, Parker?” She said, softly, her voice barely carrying in this sanctum that Parker didn’t quite understand.

“You need to stop acting like idiots,” Parker said, firmly – and, perhaps, too loudly, if Sophie’s wince and Hardison’s oh, Lord, and Eliot’s hissed shhh was any indication. She jerked on both of their hands, glowering before she hissed in return, ignoring the sidelong stares they were getting from the few others scattered around the room. “Well, you do. Come on.”

Eliot looked at Sophie, his eyebrows raised, almost pleading, and she finally stood, tucking the medallion away. “Alright, alright, I’m coming…” She followed on the trio’s heels until Parker had dragged the men through the entire hospital, stopped them right at Nate’s door. “How are we being idiots?”

Parker had had time storming around to think, to try and process what she was feeling into words, the way everyone else seemed to have no problem doing, but everything was caught between her brain and her lips, it seemed; pooling in her eyes.

“Look,” she finally managed to say, letting go of Eliot’s hand. The hitter rubbed it, cracked his knuckles, like he was trying to wake it up. “If…if there’s one thing you guys have taught me, it’s that we’re more than just a team. You know? We’re…we’re a family.

She could feel the water now, welling up. The words weren’t coming out right, but they weren’t laughing at her, so she kept going. “And all we’ve been doing since Nate got here is split up and head off in different directions and…and we. We needed that, when he was still out there, but he’s not out there now, so…”

“We….we either have each other’s backs, or we don’t.” Eliot said, and she almost snapped at him for stealing her words when it sank in that he was saying them because he agreed.

“I came back because you needed me. All of you.” Parker continued, trying for firm, trying for something Sophie would say – it still came out more watery than she wanted. “Maybe…maybe he’ll come back…for all of us.”

“Well, when we put the three of you together,” Sophie said, ruefully, “He’s never able to keep his mouth shut.” She sighed, running a hand through her hair. “It’s…I guess it’s certainly worth a shot.”

Hardison opened the door. Parker retrieved the elephant from Eliot, caught Hardison’s arm and followed him in.

*

Buried deep as you can dig inside yourself
And covered with a perfect shell
Such a charming, beautiful exterior
Laced with brilliant smiles and shining eyes
Perfect posture, but you're barely scraping by
But you're barely scraping by

This is one time, this is one time
That you can't fake it hard enough to please everyone
Or anyone at all...or anyone at all
And the grave that you refuse to leave
The refuge that you've built to flee,
The places that you've come to fear the most
Is the place that you have come to fear the most.

*

The party’s a success. The house and yard are awash with color  - tiny glittering lights in the trees and the bushes, flowers lining the hallway and foyer, leading out to the back deck and into the fairy-world beyond. The air smells like champagne and summer, chlorine from the neighbor’s pool; honeysuckle from the trees.  Nate can hear the voices of their guests, musical and filled with cheer and compliments.

Something isn’t right, doesn’t fit, and it’s eating at him from the inside out that he can’t put his finger on it, and so he still sits inside, sprawled in the upstairs hall, his back pressed to the smooth wood of the banister.

The house is empty, the guests are all outside.

Jimmy’s not one of them.

The house phone rests in one hand, blocking the angry lines marring his finger from his sight. The little red light at the base of the phone is blinking on and off regularly. There’s a message on the machine.

I don’t think I want to know what he said.

“Nate!” Maggie’s voice calls up from the foot of the stairs. He turns so he can look down at her, her lovely face cast in shadow and the golden glow of the flowers. She looks…sad, somehow. Worried. “Are you planning on coming out, or are you going to be antisocial all night?”

Antisocial. The word calls up others, like they were just waiting to join the party. Withholding. Cold, insensitive. Distant. Is he distant? He doesn’t feel distant. He feels like he’s right here, with everyone else drifting away.

“I’ll be down in a minute,” he says, and if any of his malaise shows in his voice, Maggie doesn’t seem to notice it. She turns on her heel and is gone, leaving Nate alone with the phone.

He thumbs the button to play the message, and Jimmy’s worn, leather-warm voice rises from the earpiece. “Nate. Nathan, son. I’m gone. Gone. You know that, right? Tell them…”

Nate mashes the button, throws the phone at the wall, kills the voice from the speaker, but not the one in his head.

Tell them how much Jimmy Ford loves his son.

When he manages to stand, manages to look down the stairs again, the girl is there, crouched in front of the door, shining bits of metal in her sure and steady hand. There’s smoke rising from near her feet, dark and thick and roiling, and he feels his sore fingers clamp down on the banister.

“What are you doing?”

She doesn’t answer, doesn’t look up, slides another little strip of metal into the door’s oversized lock. He takes a step forward, accidentally kicks the phone. It skitters under the rail, clattering across the hardwood floor below. “I told you to leave that alone.”

“Sorry.” Her voice is terse, her mouth quirked in an apologetic smile. “Can’t.”

Something inside the door clicks and she’s pulling it open to the tune of wind rushing in Nate’s ears. He takes the last five steps in a single leap, lunging for the door, hand outstretched but too slow.

“Stop.” The word feels too raw in his throat, too desperate; he’s not certain of anything anymore. Jimmy’s gone, Sam’s gone, Maggie’s gone back to the backyard that might as well be a thousand miles away for how close he feels.

He’s not certain of anything but that door, that door that desperately needs to stay closed, shut, locked and forgotten.

“Stop.” He staggers to her side, grabs the handle, pushes against it. “Stop. Don’t. Please.” The words feel familiar on his lips, but he can’t pause to think about that without feeling sick. “Stop. It needs…I need…” There are tears in the word, and fear, and the girl won’t let go of the door, her grip like iron as he shoves on it with all his faltering strength, tries to push it back shut.

“I said stop, Parker, just…just please. Please, please, please. Stop.”

The girl pauses, looking over her shoulder at him through a curtain of spun gold; he has never seen eyes that blue, not even in the mirror.

“I never told you my name, Nate.”

He falters in stunned silence, and his hesitation is enough that she reaches out and drags him off his feet and through the open door.

And he remembers it all.

*

He remembers a hospital and too many tests; the house, gone, the car, gone, a too-small boy in a too big bed. Pacing halls and chewing nails and praying. Always praying. And then a too-small coffin in a too-big hole. And the feeling that maybe, maybe, he hadn’t been praying enough.

He remembers paperwork and saying goodbye and feeling like that shouldn’t be all he could do to repay this; to repair this. That no matter how sorry, how horribly, chokingly sorry he it would never, ever be sorry enough.

He remembers a childhood of watching card tricks and broken fingers, of being yelled at. The bone-deep conviction that he could never be good enough. He remembers the priests and nuns who helped him think that, maybe, for awhile, he could be – and the explosion that took away his chance to prove it.

He remembers this.

*

Nate hadn’t expected the text from Maggie; half-expects something to be wrong when he takes the steps of Josephine’s.  As such, he’s not entirely surprised when Maggie’s nowhere in sight. He smiles tight, gives his name, and finds himself led to a table right around the corner from their old booth. Faced with an old man who reminds him, very strongly, of a snake; an old man who tugs at memories thirty years forgotten.

“Mal…?” he says, sitting down cautiously. There are three others at the table, between him and the old man. They’re already working on a tray’s-worth of appetizers, barely looking up to acknowledge his presence.

Malcolm Ian Vicent’s lips split in a broad, pleased smile. “Nathan! You remember me.”

“Yeah...” He remembers the other man, vaguely – the obnoxious tie helps. He’d been one of Jimmy’s friends, tended to show up at McRory’s Place around payday. Always handing out quarters, but with a tendency to yell if you got him upset – and he’d never cared for his crews very well. Nate can remember half a dozen people in the neighborhood, petty thieves, older kids, locked up after helping with one of his schemes or another. It had happened often enough that Jimmy told him to stay away from Malcolm more than once.

But that didn’t explain why he’s here.

“I haven’t seen you since…what…”

“1978.”

“God, yeah. Yeah.” He shakes the old man’s outstretched hand as he sits down, eyebrows furrowed. “You’re not Maggie.”

“Forgive me a little deception?” Malcolm purrs, reaching down to the side of his chair to pull up his briefcase. Nate sits back in his seat, suspecting (just like that) he isn’t going to like this conversation.

 Nate keeps his eyes on the older man’s hands. “Yeah, sure, you betcha. How about you tell me why I’m here?”

Once the photographs hit the table, he knows he doesn’t like it. He stares at the pictures of Parker, and can’t help but think of the people the older man left burned in his wake, all those years ago.

…right, that’s it. Out of town you go, again.

“I’m borrowing your friend.” Malcolm says, simply.

“Not a chance.” Nate says right back. “Sorry.”

“It wasn’t a request, Nathan. It’ll only be for tonight. If you don’t tell her we’re coming to pick her up, we’ll just…pick her up. I’ve already got Austin following her…” The old man’s eyes casually flicker to the last empty seat, and Nate doesn’t doubt him for a second. Has no reason to when Malcolm pulls the cell phone from his pocket, turns it so Nate can see the time stamped picture on it: Parker in the grocery store, looking through the dairy aisle.

He was always small-time. You can handle whatever it is he wants Parker for.

He draws in a breath; let it out as a sigh. "Look, Mal. I meant what I said. You can’t have her.” A part of him thinks that this could be useful – Mal was friends with Jimmy, after all, and that means he’s had at least some dealings with the Families. Another part of him is certain that, after the patent office fiasco, this is a really bad idea; he should back off and get the team to figure out what the man wants. But the largest part of him is just so angry that Mal thinks he can stomp in and threaten his crew that he doesn’t really think it through. Mal doesn’t say a word, and Nate goes on. "You don’t need to use her.  You can use me."

It was almost scary how fast Malcolm agrees.

That should have been his first warning.

*

It’s sort of like chess for awhile after that, trading pieces back and forth:

Malcolm insists he order dinner before he leaves to get ready for this mysterious job.

Nate has no intentions of eating anything, so he orders the most expensive meal on the menu, out of spite.

Mal just rolls his eyes, fondly, and demands his cell phone. “Or,” he says, still smiling mildly, “Austin will go back to plan A.”

Nate hesitates, but the goon squad is looking a little more alert by now. He passes over his cell phone reluctantly and insists, on principle alone, “I’m taking the pictures, then.”

“Just be back by seven.”

Nate glances at his watch. It’s already 6:38. That’s not enough time to pull anything, and he bites down hard on the curse.

Check and mate.

He doesn’t bother to reply when he pushes himself to his feet, grabs the photos and sweeps out of the restaurant.

Nate had left enough of his stuff at his apartment above McRory’s that he’s able to change into something he could move in more easily than the suit – just well-worn jeans, a dark hoodie and his sneakers. He sets the pictures on the bed, and hurries to get changed.

There’s something in the pocket, something that snags on his fingertips. He pulls it out to find Zoe Kerrigan’s St. Brigit medallion from the first case they’d met Bonanno. It’s the one thing in this apartment that isn’t nailed down or clothing, so he shoves it back in his pocket, just in case.

In case of what? He finds himself thinking as he ties his shoes. In case Malcolm’s pulling something bigger than you thought? The idea makes him pause, looking around the room.

…if I were kidnapped, where is the first place Sophie would look for a message?

That, of course, doesn’t require much thought. He places the photographs on the empty floor beneath the bed, stands, and hurries out the door.

*

“So…what’s this big score y’got goin’ here?”

He asks the question as obnoxiously as he can, flopping down in his chair, and playing up the attitude just a bit to cover the fact that he’s legitimately uncertain about this whole situation. The fact that the other men are still dressed up, suits and ties, doesn’t alleviate his nerves; it actually makes him feel…smaller, somehow. His dinner arrived while he was gone, and the whole plate looks cold.

“Score?” Malcolm asks, and Nate shrugs, slides his hand into his pocket, closing his fingers around the medallion’s chain. He plays with it for a second, almost like a rosary, letting the smooth metal sooth him.

“Yeah. The job, the scam, the score…” He shrugs, grinning. “I ain’t got all night, y’ know?”

I don’t like this at all.

“Oh, but you’ll have to have all night. This…job might take a while.” Malcolm chuckles, and next thing Nate knows the old man’s switched seats so he’s right next to Nate. Something about the new proximity makes a chill run down Nate’s spine, especially when Malcolm reaches out as if he wants to take his hand.

“I was sorry to hear about Jimmy.”

The simple, earnest words bring a defensive frown to his face, but Malcolm’s pals around the table are all pointedly looking elsewhere, as if their surroundings are the most fascinating thing ever. Nate eyes them all before, against his better judgment, reaching out to pat Malcolm’s hand wrinkled hand.

Jimmy hadn’t ever seemed like a feeble old man. Malcolm, though just a few years older, looks a couple dozen pounds lighter, his shoulders hunched, his fingers gnarled and arthritic. But when he catches Nate’s hand, his grip is like a vise, holding his hand to the table.

“He was a good friend. But…business is business.”

And as he tries to pull free, there’s a sharp, flaring pain in his finger. Malcolm lets go, and Nate looks at his hand. There’s blood dripping from his fingertip, near the pad; a long track left beneath the skin.

Injection.

“…what the hell did you…”

His voice rises until he lifts his gaze to Malcolm’s, feeling a pang of fear for the first time that evening. Mal’s smile is mild, almost kind. Nate can remember that smile behind a handful of quarters, a pack of gum, but for the first time since childhood he can see the razor blade beneath the candy coating. The old man brandishes the cell phone with Parker’s picture like a talisman and Nate swallows hard, letting the words die.

Mal nods, regally. “Just…making sure you cooperate.”

Nate’s finger aches, and he looks around the alcove with the table. If it wasn’t for that phone, he would bolt. He would yell and cause a scene and do whatever the hell it took to get out. He’s not above looking like a coward if it means he survives, but…on the other end of that phone is a man with an eye (and who knew what else) on an unsuspecting member of his team.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. The voice reciting in his head sounds an awful lot like Eliot. He’s in trouble – a hell of a lot of trouble – and he talked himself out of the only thing that would have given him a chance. So, basically, you’re screwed.

He tries for his best grin, though he knows for a fact that it’s weak.

“I guess we’ve got to have an even playing field. I’ll take the handicap.”

The old man’s laugh is genuine.

It’s hard to keep the calm, collected upper hand when you’ve been injected with an unknown substance, but he tries, turning to the ignored filet mignon and lobster as if that had been the plan all along.

Really, though, it’s because he doesn’t want the drug or poison or whatever it is burning through his hand to hit on top of an empty stomach. The cold food tastes like ashes, and he only manages to finish his baked potato before the drowsiness hits, wrapping his thoughts in a layer of cotton. His fork clatters to the table, the fingers of his uninjured hand closing around the medallion again, and he finds himself staring at Malcolm though his eyelashes.

Malcolm smirks at him, standing. “Come on. Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”

Nate slips the medallion out of his pocket with a trembling hand, letting it fall into the crevice between the cushion and the chair’s back with a silent prayer – please let someone I know find it -  before he levers himself upright. The floor seems to tilt beneath his feet, and two of Malcolm’s nameless men slide their hands under his arms, half-supporting, half-leading him out the door and into the chilly evening.

The car he doesn’t want to climb into takes them through the city, deep into south Boston with its maze of warehouses. Nate keeps an eye out the window the whole time, listening to the small-talk of the thugs he shares the car with as he tries to memorize the route through the darkness edging at his vision. It’s all just football and baseball and basketball, Rhianna and cars; generic stuff that gives him no handle on what he’s dealing with. The world goes black two or three times; and each time he opens his eyes to find himself huddled against one of the thugs in the backseat.

They finally stop in front of a warehouse that looks exactly the same as the rest of the row of warehouses. Nate scans the alley as he’s hauled out of the car, looking around warily.

“Seriously?” The word comes out slurred, and he’s certain no one is buying the bluster in his tone, not with the way his knees are shaking. “No, really. Seriously. You…you had to drug me for this-

He never sees the punch coming. It slams into his stomach, knocking the breath out of his lungs. He also doesn’t see the hand that claws into his hair, jerks his head further forward, rams his face into someone’s knee. He lets out a choked yelp as he tries to pull free and finds he can’t, and anything he’d been planning to say dissolves when he hits the steel door, feeling his teeth rattle. Someone barks an order, but he can’t hear it over the seasick ringing in his head. The warehouse door creaks open and he’s dragged bodily over the threshold, thrown to the dusty floor.

He might have tried to talk again, if not for the foot that slams into his ribs. He nearly gags on the air he hadn’t been able to breathe properly, the sound terrifyingly weak in his own ears. He pushes himself back upright, takes a swing at his nearest assailant, only to have the big man catch his arm, spin him around and guide him right back into another strike.

Where’s Eliot when you need him? he finds himself thinking through the fresh pain in his gut, and then, oh, that’s right, you learned nothing from the last time you flew solo. The next punch hits him in the temple, and for a moment all he can see is stars.

And there are four men there now, he suddenly realizes when the stars clear, four men besides the old man. They’re all circling him like wolves. He staggers back upright, eyes narrowed against the ache and the burn and the way the room flips.

“W-was there ever really a plan A?” He stammers, licking his lips.

Silence met his question, followed by, “What the hell kind of question is that?”

“There never was a heist, was there?” Talking was becoming more difficult with each word, but he needs to talk, needs some small illusion of control in the situation.

“No.” Malcolm answers, calmly. “No heist. Just…some long deserved payback.”

There’s a signal or a sign or something Nate doesn’t see in there; because after that, he doesn’t get much of a chance to breathe.

*

He can’t even tell which way is up when it all stops. His head is spinning, his ribs are screaming, and he can taste blood on his tongue. He lays there, staring at the ceiling and trying to convince his lungs they work, trying to convince his legs that they’re still attached to the rest of him.

“That’s all you wanted, right, man?” One of the men from the car asked, his voice warbling a bit from the sounds in Nate’s ears. Malcolm clicks his tongue, a sound Nate finds oddly familiar, and finally makes a sound of assent.

“That’s what I wanted, yes…” He can hear Malcolm pacing, shoes loud on the concrete floor. One of them nudges the side of his neck, and his eyes flicker open again to see Mal staring down at him. The old man looks thoughtful, his eyes scanning over Nate’s battered form. “Though…”

“What?”

Nate manages to roll over, push himself up on one knee, the room yawing around him like a crazed merry-go-round. Malcolm bends down enough to grab a handful of curls, holding him that way, and he barely registers the fresh pain on top of all the others.

“How much am I paying you again?” Mal’s voice is distant, his thumb rubbing gently at Nate’s scalp, the touch almost soothing beneath the nausea and the vertigo. The biggest of his assailants, the one Malcolm had called Austin, shrugged with a grin.

“Two-hundred-fifty-k.”

Malcolm lets go of Nate’s hair, stepping back, distancing himself from his prisoner. It’s an effective move; Nate has to catch himself before his chin bashes concrete.

His voice is cold.

 “I’ll double the payout for any of you willing to fuck him.”

The room went quiet besides the white noise in Nate’s ears as he stared at the old man in disbelief. His hired help were doing the same, gaping – aside from Austin, who just kept grinning.

“You’re serious,” one of them finally ventured, and Malcolm raised an eyebrow, calmly.

“Did I ever imply I wasn’t?”

Nate rolls over onto his side, gathering his legs for a desperate lunge as, above him, Malcolm haggles with his men over something he has no right to barter away.

“So…five hundred thousand dollars.”

“Yes.”

“Hell, sure. Why not?”

Nate manages to haul his battered body off the floor though his legs don’t want to cooperate. He’s halfway out the open door before someone tackles him and he hits the floor, hard, another man’s fingers digging cruelly into his arm. He kicks, flails, desperately trying to break their hold on him, but there’s too many of them, and they weren’t drugged, they haven’t spent the last hour as someone’s punching bag and they keep him down easily.

There’s a fresh, sharp jab of pain in his finger, and he blinks his eyes open to see Malcolm sliding the needle out of his skin, leaving another brilliant track behind.

Everything after that point comes in bits and pieces.

Fighting tooth and nail, to no effect, his thoughts not connecting with the speed they’re supposed to, if they even connect at all.

Someone yanking his jeans down, unzipping his hoodie, stripping his shirt off.

Duct tape and silk wrapped so tight around his wrists that he can’t even feel his fingers.

The cold steel of the table against his stomach. Math problems going through his head, phone numbers, their client list. Maggie, Sam, Jimmy, Sophie. People he never got to say goodbye to.

A hand between his legs, brushing over his bare thighs, crawling up his ribs; fingernails digging into his shoulders, scraping across his hips. Game theory and philosophy and poetry, paintings and city maps and…

Being shoved down and straddled, slicked and stretched, held still as bodies thrust against him and in him, as hands jerk through his hair, clamp under his chin, trace over his throat, threatening to close and squeeze. Dirty things whispered in his ear in a voice too close, too familiar, predatory and pleased.  The sensation of being moved – from his hands and knees to flat on his belly, to sprawled on someone else’s lap, the only constants the sawing pressure on his wrists and the blaze of humiliation behind his eyes.

His begging words reduced to whines and wordless whimpers when the tears became too much; burying his face, biting his arm to stop those before the embarrassment kills him from the inside out.

Once he finally thinks its over, he can still feel rough hands on his legs; teeth and lips and tongue mapping his naked skin, Malcolm’s palsied hands clamped on his neck, laced through his hair, keeping him pinned down, held down, vulnerable. He can’t really see and he can’t move and he can’t think and it hurts.

Please be done now. Please.

Malcolm’s cold fingers trace down his quivering, sweaty back with an air of pride; ownership and triumph.

“This would have been far more satisfying years ago, Nathan, but…well.” His movement suggests a shrug, the dismissive gesture scraping his fingertips across Nate’s skin. “You know what they say, right?” He ducks down, close enough that Nate can smell the wine he’d had with dinner on his breath under the suddenly strong scent of kerosene. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

He plants a chaste kiss to the sweat-curled hair at Nate’s temple, tips his head back and presses his lips to Nate’s.

He’s not getting out of this alive.

The conviction’s sunk in his brain and he doesn’t resist when Malcolm licks his mouth open, deepening the kiss until his hard-earned breath is stolen; until all he can do is gasp.

Then the violating lips are gone and he tastes paper, pressing his tongue down. He can’t spit it out before there’s duct tape over his mouth, holding it in. Malcolm breathes in his ear again; his voice a deep-chested growl of triumph.

I always pay my whores.”

The old man stands, straightening his jacket with a chuckle. Nate can’t even move; he only lays there, eyes burning, head pounding, still trying desperately to get enough breath through his nose. He’s dimly aware of Malcolm giving him a final once-over.

“Alright.” Malcolm says, stroking his hand one more time through Nate’s hair, gently. Affectionately.

“Go ahead and take out the trash.” 

*

Austin’s the last person he sees after Malcolm leaves. The look in his amber eyes when he flips Nate onto his back and untangles his wrists from Mal’s necktie is horribly, horribly knowing, and all Nate wants to do is curl up and cry.

He’s not even given that, though, because Austin drags him off the table, shoves him to the floor in an undignified pile of sore limbs and throbbing muscles and sweat. He grabs the duct tape, wrapping more of it between Nate’s already-bound wrists, taping them to the leg of the heavy table.

“You’re a fighter, Nathan,” he says in his low, lazy drawl as he tears the tape. Nate gives his hands an experimental tug. The tape doesn’t budge an inch. “A scrapper. Hopelessly outnumbered and outclassed, and you still fought me.” Unspoken: for all the good it did you.

“I like that.” He lifts his eyes to look at something beyond Nate, past the table, and Nate slowly turns to see the orange glow flickering in the far end of the warehouse, the crackle of a fire barely audible over the sudden panic flooding him, filling the spaces between his synapses.

“’Course, I’d also like to see you try and fight your way out of that.” He jerks his head back around just in time for Austin to slap the duct tape on over his eyes. The big man’s hand skims down the gutter of Nate’s spine and is gone, leaving him alone with the flames.

*

When the memories stop spiking through him like so many needles and he can see again, the first thing that swims back into focus is the garish purple and black tie, wrapped over his bloody wrists. He blinks, once or twice, trying to get his eyes to focus as they fill with tears. He can breathe now - no longer choking on the money, the duct taped peeled away - but he’s still sprawled on a cold and bloody concrete floor.

He hurts everywhere; body, mind, soul – a deep ache that threatens to claw its way back up his throat and drown him. He bites back a sob, sensing (more than seeing) Parker’s presence by his side, solid and real against the howling-ghost anger of the flames licking the walls.

“I don’t,” his words are thick and hoarse, and they choke off in another barely stifled sob. He burns, somewhere beneath the pain, at the degradation of it all. “I d-don’t want to die like this.”

There’s a long silence, heavy and profound; Nate’s heartbeat loud in his ears, burying his thoughts with an almost mechanical regularity.

And then Parker sighs, reaches out and tugs one end of the necktie. It pulls free, slithering off in a hiss of silk on skin, and his hands fall loose.

He blinks up at her in incomprehension as she ducks down to kiss his forehead; a small, enigmatic smile on her face.

“So…don’t?”

And like that, she’s gone.

His legs are shaky as a newborn colt’s and there are a couple missteps when he manages to climb to his feet, but the fire flickering at the corners of his eyes and the gathering gray smoke coiling along the floor is enough motivation to get him to his feet every single time he falls.

The warehouse door is still there, hanging open now, leading to the deserted and empty hallway of his house; the flames are practically licking at his heels. He picks up speed, step by limping step, and drags himself out of the warehouse and into the hall.

If he looks back, he can see the huge warehouse looming beyond that hated door. He reaches out to touch it, shut it again, buy himself some time - just as the whole room-that-shouldn't-be is engulfed in a roar and a crackle of flame. He can feel the heat on his skin as he recoils.

And then the fire starts to spread over the walls.

What are you waiting for?

The photographs are gone, the mementoes of the life he’s had to leave behind. There are spaces on the walls where they used to be, but even as he watches the spots darken, smoldering with the heat of the fire beyond the wall. He forces himself to move, again, closer and closer to the front door and its promised freedom.

The photographs are gone, just like the people in them. Sam. Maggie. Jimmy. This life. There’s nothing here for him now, nothing to keep him in the house – but his steps still falter, he still hesitates when he reaches the foyer.

There’s nothing here for you.

His hand closes around the doorknob as half of the hall ceiling collapses, throwing sparks. There is, he realizes, one last picture hanging on the wall. Four figures, two men, two women. Names he knows now, people he’s missed without realizing: Hardison and Sophie, Eliot and the girl, Parker. He reaches out as if to touch it, briefly – and realizes.

Everything’s there now.

He opens the door instead.

The breeze blows over him, the fresh oxygen teasing the inferno even higher, the heat flaring at his bare back; sparks landing on his skin. There’s a deep, grinding groan from within the house, some horrible creature robbed of its prey, and he can see the floorboards starting to split beneath his feet, revealing a gaping pit of darkness and flame.

But the sun’s bright in his eyes, blazing and brilliant, and he holds his hand up to shield his eyes as he takes his first, shaking step out onto the porch.

And his world goes white.

*

Bonanno passed by on his way out of the hospital, poked his head in the half-open door, and almost smiled at the sight that met his eyes.

Eliot lay sprawled on the end of the bed, his feet over one edge, his head over the other, his long hair hanging down like a curtain to brush the floor as he slept in that improbable position, a book in one hand, his glasses in the other.

Sophie had managed to worm her way between the various tubes and machines to lean next to Nate, one hand resting against Nate’s curls, the other tucked beneath her. Her forehead almost – but not quite – brushed his; her hair dark against the white linen pillowcase

Hardison had claimed the chair at the head of the bed, pushed almost against the wall. He sat curled up, his long legs, long arms curled in on himself; one hand wrapped in Parker’s, the other intertwined with Nate’s, fingers dark against the paleness of their skin. He kept fidgeting in his sleep, restlessly.

And Parker sat on the backrest of Hardison’s chair, cross-legged and leaning against the wall, her eyes closed, her lips curved in a small, cat-like smile. As Hardison twitched, her fingers moved, tightening soothingly around his.

Bonanno reached out to take the doorknob, and Parker’s eyes flickered open. Her gaze met his, and he held one finger up to his lips. Her smile grew, a bit; sleepy – but safe.

And, as he closed the door, somehow he knew.

They were going to be alright.

*

~fin

*