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Now, How Sweet We Are

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He is eleven and trying to focus on every strain of conversation in the room is causing him to go cross-eyed and staticy. It’s not a bad feeling—not yet. Everything’s loud, bright, and going so many directions. But it’s all good . Two kids are laughing about something to his left, three more are screeching and chasing after each other to his right. He can hear the adults in the kitchen chattering over and around each other, trying to be heard, but not too put out to listen.

His new foster mom—“Nana, if you’re comfortable with that, dear,”—had assured him it wasn’t normally like this. Some of her older kids, with kids of their own, were visiting, filling the already crowded house to capacity. He didn’t think she had to worry. This was amazing.

He’d been in busy houses before. Houses filled with crashing noise and raised voices—too much to do, too many people to send in too many directions. None of them had felt like this. This was chaos, sure—but it felt different. Warm. Comfortable. Like a home.

Fitting everyone around the two dinner tables—one big old oak monstrosity, one folding plastic camp table covered in a navy blue table cloth, half pushed into the living room—was a stretch, but they managed. He was sitting between Nana and...Jaime? James? He couldn’t remember. Nice enough kid, even if they hadn’t really talked yet.

Dinner itself was just as loud an affair as the build up had been. Nana was holding court over one of the tables—stories that made everyone laugh, including him, even if he didn’t know the people she was talking about. The other table was its own web of criss-crossing conversations that occasionally broke into theirs like a wave.

Asked later, he wouldn’t really remember what he ate—there was a lot , and no one got mad when he skipped on the green things (he would’ve eaten them, if pushed. Being picky wasn’t a trait he indulged in often, and he didn’t plan to here. But there was just so much. It couldn’t hurt, this time, right?). He ended up slouching in his chair before most everyone else, belly full, happily sleepy, content to just listen to the flow of conversation—piping up shyly, but with growing confidence, when someone asked him a question.

Still later, he’d realize just how rare a big dinner like this was. Not that Nana ever let any of them go without—not once, not them. (Herself, sometimes though, even if they wouldn’t know until they were older.) But tonight was special—the biggest family gathering at Nana’s house in months, if not years. There were more people around to help, more people around to eat and enjoy.

He’d remember that dinner for years. How his nonstop brain had its pick of conversations to follow, how no one looked at him funny for taking time to process something before jumping full tilt into an answer from across the table, how everyone was just happy , and comfortable with each other. How full and comfortable he felt, for the first time in...well. Years.

He didn’t think he could eat another bite, when it was all said and done—too full, too tired, buzzing slightly with hypersensitivity as the loud noises started getting to him, towards the end there.

And then Nana and a couple of the others brought out dessert. Pies, cheesecake, what he later learned was something called monkey bread.

He may have been full, but he was still an eleven year old. He could always make room for dessert.

And, miracle upon miracles, as long as he let others get a slice too, no one got mad when he zeroed in on the lemon meringue pie and ended up taking several slices. He’d never tasted anything better—and that is what he’d remember, vividly, for years to come.

Surrounded by what was clearly a family, one that was willing to accept him in so easily, make a place for him at their table without question… He was comfortable and sated, with sweet and tart on his tongue, and he couldn’t stop his smile. Even dish duty couldn’t wipe it away.

She is fourteen and side-eyeing the money on the table hard enough she can feel a headache forming. Its been sitting there for an hour, ever since Archie strolled in and placed it there. Said it was hers. Her cut, for the first job they did (she did).

She’s been on edge since. Trying to figure out what the catch was. Because there’s always a catch.

And it’s not that she doesn’t trust Archie—she doesn’t, but that’s not why. He plays fair enough, for a thief. As far as she can tell, he hasn’t cheated her. Not yet. And it’s been ‘not yet’ for long enough that she can see herself trusting him, in some way, fairly soon.

But that doesn’t change the fact that it was Archie. And Archie didn’t give her anything without a catch.

Ice cream for a laser grid. Training for her skills, if she’d help him. A home for her discretion.

She was still sitting there, two hours later, when Archie came back. He called her down, waited for her to jump and clamber back down to his height, before he grabbed the money and pushed it into her hands.

It was hers. She’d earned it. And he knew she preferred cash, so cash is what she got.

What she did with it was her concern. He wouldn’t ask. Not that she didn’t think that meant he wouldn’t know—but the reassurance was...nice, in a way. An offer of privacy, even one they both saw through, was more than she’d had in a long time. And she couldn’t even begrudge him the fact that it wasn’t entirely honest.

They were thieves. Knowing was their business.

Satisfied that his point had been made, Archie left her alone again. She’d see him again the day after tomorrow, probably. He tried to keep her training consistent, but he insisted on taking time after jobs, and sometimes he couldn’t always get away from his family.

She had her rigs to work on anyway. She’d grown another two inches—threw her weight off, and a couple of her first rigs needed to be adjusted.

But the money, where she’d placed it back on the table, kept catching her eye.

Archie was right—she did prefer cash. Not for what it could do, but because it was real . You could do far more with cash in hand, could gain far more security in a situation, than any bit of plastic, or any shiny bauble.

But, still…

It felt weird, walking into the corner store. Broad daylight. Letting the clerk see her.

She couldn’t quite pull herself out of her automatic hunch, hands shoved in her pockets. But apparently she looked normal enough that the clerk barely took a second look at her.

It felt even weirder, putting the box on the counter. Pulling out a five dollar bill and handing it over. Pocketing the change.

She could’ve slipped out with the box, just fine. She’d done it before. Would do it again. It was nothing.

But walking out of the corner store, receipt in her pocket, the clerk completely forgetting she existed about two seconds after that door was a new feeling. Not necessarily a good one, but not a bad one either. Just weird.

When she got back to the warehouse she was staying in—if absolutely nothing else, it was hers . And that made it home—she opened the box, poured the sugary cereal into a bowl, dumped what was left of the milk from her mini-fridge into it, before grabbing a spoon and climbing back up into the rafters.

She was slightly disappointed that paid for food didn’t taste all that different than stolen food. Not that she’d thought it really would, but still.

What did feel different, was...well, her.

She could have whatever she wanted. All by stealing, sure. Whether she stole what she wanted, or what others wanted, she’d be okay. Her skills would get her whatever she needed.

She was pretty sure the next bite of cereal tasted just a bit sweeter.

She glanced down at the box again. Rocket Os. A decisive nod. Those were her favorite now.

He is thirty-two and sitting across from Toby, trying to pick apart the spaghetti bolognese in front of him. Toby isn’t having it, isn’t letting him finish any thought that starts with “But,” or “What if,” or “If I just.”

Tells him to just be happy he made something. That, for a first attempt in Toby’s kitchens, to be glad nothing got burned or broken.

He wonders if he should tell Toby about the bent pan handle he’d shoved into the garbage. Avoiding frustration while cooking was already something he could tell he’d have to worry about.

He decides against it, going back to (quietly) picking apart the food in front of him.

It’s hard not to.

It’s just him and Toby in the dining room—one table for them set up right by the kitchen, the rest of the room dark, chairs up on the tables, floors shiny from being mopped after they closed. Eliot would’ve been fine eating in the kitchen. Or, better yet, chucking everything and starting over, even if it’d take all night.

But Toby had insisted. And since it was Toby’s school, and Toby was here after hours to help him out, he felt he couldn’t really argue. And Toby knew it, the smug bastard.

There was a brief wistful moment there, remembering the five seconds Toby was afraid of him, and wouldn’t even think of strong-arming him into this ridiculousness. But it passed even before a shudder of revulsion at the idea could slip down his spine.

He could grumble all he want, but Toby being unwilling to deal with his shit was exactly what he needed.

Speaking of which, Toby still hadn’t let him get a word in edgewise, about how the plate in front of him could be improved. And, logically, he could see where the man was coming from. Technically, there was nothing wrong with the dish.

It tasted fine, was cooked well, and besides the pan Toby didn’t need to know about, his kitchen was still intact.

What was tearing at his edges though, was the way it tasted wrong . And he couldn’t even fool himself about why.

It didn’t taste like his ma’s. But he couldn’t tell Toby that.

He trusted Toby—in a way he hadn’t trusted another person in a long, long time. But that was still a little too close to the chest for now.

So, even if Toby wasn’t letting him voice it, he could still try to figure it out. Because the thing was—

The thing was.

He still remembered, coming up, listening to his ma, humming and singing in the kitchen most nights. How, when he was little, she’d plop him right down on the counter to watch her, sometimes “help” her, in whatever way a chubby, stubborn little five-year-old could. How, when he got to high school, she got so excited that he’d signed up for that Home Ec. class that she’d dragged him back into the kitchen. And she’d been so happy , that he hadn’t been able to say no. Had gotten into the swing of helping her cook most nights, occasionally breaking to pull her into a dance to the song on the radio that made her laugh and whoop before she’d shoo him away again.

How his dad would lean in the kitchen doorway, small, fond smile in place. Sometimes, how his dad’d take her hand when he swung her out, and keep the dance going while he went back to whatever was on the stovetop.

He knows getting the food right won’t bring all that back.

But. It’d be nice, to get some echo of that feeling. Just for a bit.

He doesn’t really think Toby can read his mind, but Toby does end up poking him with a fork, dragging him from his memories, tells him that this is just a start. A good one, but still. Just a start. It doesn’t need to be perfect to be something , to be good .

It was exactly what he needed to hear, whether Toby knew it or not.

It wasn’t quite his ma’s. But that was okay, this was just a starting point. Ma’s was something to work towards.

They are a year and six months into running Leverage International on their own.

They are a year into this thing between them that’s bloomed full and sweet. Six months into officially living together, even if all that meant was that Eliot gave up his last non-bolthole apartment in the city and parked his guitar next to Hardison’s gaming consoles, Parker gave up the warehouse they knew about and stashed her favorite rigs in their closet, and Hardison moved around what needed to be moved to make room for them. Officially.

The apartment is theirs . And right now, it’s full of sound. A radio playing a bit of Etta James and Billy Idol and everything in between. Hardison and Eliot bickering in that way that Parker assured them was actually flirting. Parker trying to sneak bits and bites out of every dish and getting laughingly shooed away every time.

Eliot pulling both Parker and Hardison into a quick spin around the fantastically large kitchen when a song he remembers comes up, grinning at their delighted laughter and surprised squawks. Hardison telling a truly outrageous story about growing up at Nana’s that has Parker in stitches and Eliot rolling his eyes trying not to smile. Parker asking every question she can think of as she watches pots and pans on the stovetop.

There’s a lot of food being made—most of it will end up in the fridge as leftovers, but no one’s really concerned. There’s a pot of spaghetti boiling in the big pot, meat searing in the pan in front of it, Parker’s favorite chicken curry simmering off to the side, and a saucepan for Hardison, slowly coming to a boil. And that’s just what’s currently cooking.

And then there’s Hardison over to the side, poring over a printed out sheet to make sure he’s got everything he needs. It had taken a lot of haggling to get Nana’s recipe (a promised visit at Thanksgiving, and a non-holiday related trip sometime in the summer. He hasn’t told the other two about them yet, but he knows they’ll be just as excited as he is), and he’s determined not to screw it up. He’s going to make the best lemon meringue pie ever.

Soon as he can figure out Nana’s loopy handwriting.

Parker’s already claimed breakfast for the next morning. Claimed she’s found the perfect recipe for combining pancakes and cereal. Hardison and Eliot had shared a look at that, but, well. Couldn’t hurt to try. Especially when she seemed so excited to try. So, like the saps they are, they’d just grinned and agreed.

There’s no real stopping in that moment. No time to break and appreciate where they are, how far they’ve come.

How there’s a warm kitchen again, full of love and laughter and dancing. How there’s nothing more to ask for, but everything they could want. How there’s another family, just as loud, just as bright, just as close.

They’re too busy living it.