Once Hardison has stopped spluttering, he stares at Parker in disbelief – because there is no way she said that, that’s just too weird, even for Parker (who can be plenty weird, with a side of bizarre-crazy-brilliant) - but then she opens her mouth and says it again, as if it’s his hearing that’s the problem.
“Saint Nicholas is our patron saint,” Parker says, again, more insistent this time.
“No,” he says, and then – fainter – “How, why, what, oh my god?”, trailing off into nonsensical protest.
Parker often has that effect on him.
“Think about it,” she says, swinging her legs from where she’s perched on the kitchen counter.
“I don’t know, Hardison,” Eliot says, smiling lazily. “Girl kind of has a point. I mean, breaking into houses while people sleep? Stealing their milk and cookies?” He tssks loudly, and there is no way Eliot should be able to look like that and sound like someone’s grandmother in the same second.
Hardison is tempted to snicker. He reminds himself that Eliot could drop him before the sound leaves his mouth.
He snickers anyway. Eliot stares at him suspiciously.
“What’s this?” Sophie asks, as she walks into the room.
Out of the corner of his eye, Hardison notes that Parker has smoothly dropped down from the bench, as if Sophie is about to chide her for sitting on the kitchen countertop. She probably would, too. Sophie is totally the mom figure in their group, he thinks, randomly –and then checks himself, because he can’t let himself think like that, shouldn’t get invested like this – because as well as they all get on, as smoothly as they work together, they’re not a family.
They are a team, though, and a good team at that.
“Parker thinks Santa is a cat burgler,” Hardison announces, resuming his mantle of righteous indignation.
“I didn’t say that,” says Parker, aggrieved. “I said he was our patron saint.”
"I've heard that too," Sophie agrees, looking thoughtful, and Hardison decides that Sophie must be agreeing just to spite him, because saints are good people, and thieves aren't good people. He should know. He lives with enough of them (is one himself, a small voice reminds him). Thieves aren't bad people, either, he corrects himself. They're just - people.
That’s when Nate bursts out of his room, heading for the door.
He’s been holed up there all day, hasn’t talked to any of them. Hardison thought he must be on one of his benders, but Nate looks clear-eyed and determined and leaving.
“Where are you going?” Sophie asks.
“Is it a job?” Parker asks eagerly. It’s been a slow week, and they’re all wired.
“It’s a one-man job,” Nate says.
“No such thing,” Eliot says sturdily, as he inserts himself smoothly between Nate and the door in less than the time it takes to blink.
Nate levels a glare at him. Eliot glares right back, just this side of insubordination.
“What part of team don’t you understand?” Eliot says. They’re the same words Nate used to say to all of them, back when they learning how to fit together, too accustomed to working solo.
The words strike a chord with Nate. He still looks distant but he does take a step back, seemingly defeated. “Fine,” he says. “But it’s not an ordinary job.”
He does roll his eyes when he sees Parker pick up her lock-picking tool belt and Hardison pick up the comms kit. “I don’t think that’s necessary,” he says, but Sophie holds up an imperious hand. “Do you want us to walk in there completely unprepared?” she bites out. She sounds pissed, but Hardison knows her well enough by now to know that’s just a degree away from worry.
She’s worried about Nate, about what they’re walking into.
Nate smiles crookedly at them. “It’s not an ordinary job,” he repeats. “In and out. I can do this myself.”
“Maybe,” Sophie says, sounding far from convinced. “But we’re going to do it with you, anyway.”
“Where are we going?” asks Parker, for about the millionth time.
“Look, you didn’t have to come,” Nate says, also for about the millionth time. He’s driving, hands clenched tight on the wheel.
When the car stops, Nate steps out and grabs a bag out of the trunk. They all pile out of the car.
Hardison knows where they are. He just doesn’t know why.
They all fall into step behind Nate as he strides sure-footed down a labyrinth of bewildering hallways. He doesn’t even pause to check for signs.
He only hesitates once, and it’s not because he’s lost, Hardison realises. It’s because he's reluctant to go in.
That's when they hear the sound behind them.
“Hi, Mr Ford,” says a little girl with the biggest blue eyes Hardison has ever seen – they’re the first thing he sees, bright and shining, then he takes in the full picture, the scarf wrapped around her head – and he realises her eyes look so big because the rest of her is so waiflike, as if she’s fading away before his eyes.
“Mr Ford,” Hardison repeats, slowly, because why the hell would Nate use his real name in a job, and then it clicks, because this isn’t a job at all, not really.
Nate sets his bag on the ground with a quiet thud, even as he sinks down to one knee and smiles at her.
“Hey, Becky,” Nate says, softly. Hardison’s heard Nate speak using plenty of voices, for different jobs – but he’s never heard this voice before. Maybe this is what Nate really sounds like. “What are you doing out of bed?”
His voice echoes in the hospital corridor.
“I don’t get it,” says Parker.
“Sh,” Sophie reproves and Eliot’s scowling the way he does before he punches something (and, knowing Eliot, he’s probably itching to get his hands on cancer and Hardison thinks, perhaps a bit wildly, that Eliot may have finally met something he can’t beat into submission –then he takes a second look at Eliot’s determined stance, his clenched fist, and isn’t so sure) but either way, it’s left to Hardison to explain to Parker the scene playing out in front of them.
“His son,” he says, “this must be the hospital,” and he leaves it at that, because Parker’s smart. She’ll connect the dots, and she does, letting out the same little exhalation the way she does right before she jumps off a tall building (up until now, he used to roll his eyes at Parker’s uncomplicated glee at flinging herself towards the earth at bone-shattering speed, and now he’s back to wondering if it’s some primal cry for help buried so deep down even she is not aware of).
The four of them step away, out of respect. It’s more for the illusion of privacy than anything else – they can still hear every word Nate says through their ear pieces, which is possibly both unethical and unfair because even though Nate knows that, he probably doesn’t remember that right now, standing in the wreckage of his own past, lost in another time; another hallway.
That’s how they all hear when Nate says, “Becky, I have to go.”
“That’s okay,” she says. “You should be with your family for Christmas.”
Hardison instinctively winces – so he’s surprised when Nate doesn’t, because he thought that Nate would automatically recoil, punch a wall, tear the hospital apart looking for something, anything with an industrial strength alcohol content. He was ready for any of these reactions.
He’s surprised when Nate just nods. “You’re right,” he says, standing up, dusting off his hands.
There’s a twinkle in his eyes as he turns to them. “Family?” Nate asks, addressing them. There’s a question lurking in his voice, and he knew they were listening, but of course he knew, he’s Nate, his genetic code contains wheels within wheels, schemes within schemes and cunning plans. It does take Hardison a second to realise that Nate’s question isn’t sarcastic, or denying the truth of her words.
He’s simply asking them if they’re ready to go.
Hardison looks around. He doesn’t have anywhere to go, he realises, or at least, nobody waiting for him when he gets there.
And he looks at Becky, at the dim outlines of rooms where children like Becky are sleeping.
“Nah,” he says. “Think I’ll stay a bit longer.”
Nate hesitates a moment, then nods slowly.
They spend Christmas day in the children's ward of St Jerome's.
Sophie stages a nativity play with a kind of mad frenzy - inexplicably taking it upon herself to act out all the parts -except that of the sheep, which she outsources to a reluctant Parker. “Baaing is beneath me,” says Sophie, by way of explanation, and Hardison thinks that has to be the weirdest thing he’s heard all day.
That is, until he hears Parker’s impression of a sheep.
The parents seem to think the resulting schizophrenic performance should earn Sophie an all-access pass to the psychiatric ward next door. The kids love it, though, laughing and cheering, and Sophie sketches a curtsey, looking prouder than any opening night Hardison has ever seen her on. He thinks Sophie may have finally found her target demographic.
He's just finished helping a boy named Patrick assemble his new remote control car. Patrick is gleefully driving the car up the walls, as Patrick's father studies the instruction manual in confusion. "It doesn't say anything about driving vertically," he says bemusedly. Hardison hides a smirk, and looks around to see where the rest of the team has got to.
Nate is talking to Becky's mother. His hand rests lightly on her arm, his voice pitched low. Sophie is gazing across to where Nate stands. She looks thoughtful.
“I don’t understand,” says a little girl, staring up at Parker who is sitting crosslegged on her bed beside her. “How will learning how to do this help me fill it?”
“It will,” Parker assures her.
Hardison takes a closer look and blinks – twice – but when he opens his eyes the second time Parker is still there, teaching a six-year old how to pick the lock on a SpongeBob Squarepants money box.
He looks up and realises he hasn’t seen Eliot in a while, just as the girl next to Parker sits up in bed. The money box drops to her side, forgotten. Parker immediately reaches for it and clutches it to her chest. Hardison doesn't even think she's aware of what she's doing. Her eyes are firmly fixed on Eliot, who has just entered the room.
“Sorry I’m late,” Eliot says, or at least, that’s what Hardison thinks he says. It’s hard to tell behind all that beard.
He reaches for the bag Nate had left on the floor. His brow crinkles when he finds it empty, and he quirks an eyebrow at Nate, who looks similarly surprised. Then they turn in unison towards Parker.
“Sorry,” Parker says, and she sounds sheepish (which would have been very handy about half an hour ago). “Habit.”
Eliot-as-Santa shoots her a quelling look and Parker pulls a present from thin air, by way of apology.
“Magic!” a little boy exclaims, in a too-reedy voice – and Parker looks pleased.
“Yes,” she says, handing it to him and Hardison thinks if she smiles any wider her face will split right open. “It is.”
Hardison’s looking at the triptych of St Jerome on the wall when it hits him. He remembers, now, the name dancing on the far reaches of his memory ever since his conversation with Parker that evening. “Saint Dismas,” he breathes, turning to address Parker as memories of scripture class flood back. “Saint Dismas is the patron saint of thieves, Parker. Not Saint Nicholas.”
She frowns at him. “But we’re not just thieves. We give people things, as well.”
He doesn't realise Nate's standing behind them, listening, until Nate starts to talk. "You're both right," he says, mildly. "Both Dismas and Nicholas are said to patronise repentent thieves." He lays a particular emphasis on the word repentent and Hardison finds it so easy to forget that Nate trained as a priest, until he comes out with random facts like this.
If you’d told him last night as he was laughing at Parker in the kitchen that by morning he would find himself whole-heartedly agreeing with her, he would have laughed even harder.
He’s not laughing now.
“Do you get it?” she asks, impatiently.
“Yeah, Parker,” he says, voice a fraction unsteady. “You’re right. We’re exactly like Santa.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he catches a glimpse of red. “Some of us more than others,” Eliot says, disgruntled, but he’s smiling.
They all are.