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Same Old Song

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1. Alec Hardison

Hardison's Nana was a former Army nurse named Rosaleen Friedman, and she got him when he got taken out of his second foster home because somebody was running a meth lab in the basement. She raised more than thirty foster kids and died of heart failure the year after he graduated high-school. The funeral was so packed that they couldn't all fit in the church. 

Hardison dropped out of MIT a week after the burial and fell off the grid for a long time. Nate started tracking him two and a half years later in Berlin, and as far as he knows, nobody's ever figured out where Hardison was for the intervening years. It's not something Hardison ever talks about.

No matter what, he visits Rosaleen's grave on the first of each month to clear away the grass and weeds, and every single time he leaves a dozen red roses. Nate figured this out after four months of tracking the newest boy-genius hacker on the scene, but he never used it.

Hardison's mother is still alive. Divorced, part-time waitress, chain-smoker, recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She lives in Staten Island, and as far as Nate knows, she hasn't seen her youngest son since he was removed from her care twenty years ago.

Her medical bills have all been paid by an anonymous donor based out of Boston.

2. Eliot Spencer

Nobody really knows much about Eliot, which is funny because he's less of a liar than the rest of them, Nate included. The name's a fake, Alec knows that much if only for the fact that Eliot Spencer appeared pretty much out of thin air in the mid-nineties, and before that his records are a big, fat blank.

He's nosy by nature, but when a few days of half-assed investigation don't turn up anything, he lets it lie. It doesn't actually seem entirely impossible that Eliot Spencer sprang fully formed from a war zone in the Middle East, anyway.

A long while later, he's playing around with some new facial recognition software and gets a hit on Facebook, of all things. It's an old scanned photo, a skinny grinning kid in a uniform and a buzzcut, and it takes Alec a good minute or two to make the connection.

The profile belongs to a forty-year-old woman in Omaha. The caption reads First tour, 1991. RIP baby bro.

With a name, Alec has a place to start. He spends twenty minutes tracking down old military records, hacks into the CIA database and spends another half hour skimming confidential files, then wipes his hard drive clean and closes his laptop.

He doesn't go looking again.

3. Parker

It doesn't happen all that often, but once in a while Parker breaks into his apartment and crawls into bed with him. The first time she does it Eliot comes up swinging, the same way he always does when somebody comes too near while he's out. There's a reason he always sleeps alone.

Parker has the reflexes of a cat, though, so when he blinks away enough of the sleep to figure out what's going on, she's on the other side of the room, mercifully uninjured. She's wearing pink flannel pajama pants and clutching a raggedy-looking stuffed animal.

Eliot pinches the bridge of his nose. "Damn it, Parker. What's wrong?"

"I can't sleep."

There's a lot he could say to that, but instead he just sighs and pats the bed next to him. "Come on, climb in. Next time, warn a guy. I coulda hurt you."

He gets her tucked under the blankets, where she curls up in a ball, knees tucked up against her chest, and she mumbles, "You wouldn't hurt me, Eliot," and closes her eyes.

He touches her hair for a second, feeling too big and clumsy in his own bedroom, and wonders what the hell he ever did to earn this kind of trust.

She never says why she does it, but from the nightmares--three, four, sometimes five a night--Eliot can guess enough. He sits up with her sometimes. He's not dumb enough to try and touch her, but he does talk, long rambling stories in the same soothing tone he'd use on a skittish horse.

Sometimes, it helps.

4. Sophie Deveraux

Parker isn't good with regular people, and people like Sophie are twice as hard because Sophie doesn't even know how to be honest with herself about what she wants from people.

She tries, though, and that's more than most people ever do with Parker.

After jobs sometimes, if she catches Parker in time, she'll take her out shopping. Parker won't buy anything, but Sophie doesn't seem to mind. She calls it 'girl time', and won't explain what that's supposed to mean when Parker asks.

"The blue dress," she says in the dressing room in Nordstrom. "It makes your skin look lovely."

Parker spins in front of a mirror, doubtfully. The skirt flares out around her legs, smooth silk and scratchy seams. "It's not very practical."

Sophie smiles, but she looks a little sad. There are dark circles under her eyes, and she smells like winter and worry under her expensive perfume. "It's not supposed to be practical, Parker."

"Okay," Parker says, even though she doesn't really understand. She pulls the dress off over her head and rolls it up. Silk folds small, and it'll be easy to stuff into the false lining of her coat without anybody noticing. She already took the security tags off. They were itchy. "I'll take it."

Sophie tugs the dress out of her hands before she can tuck it away, shakes it out. "I'll buy it for you."

5. Nathan Ford

Nate stopped chasing her when his son got sick. That was how she knew something was wrong--their flirtation, or whatever you wanted to call it, had been going on for years by that point, but it stopped cold when Sam got sick.

He caught her once, after Sam died. That's the thing nobody else knows about. He caught her, and she thinks it must have been because she wanted to be caught. Nate Ford was a legend for a reason, but he was already backsliding by then. It was in Prague, in a modern-art gallery, and she knew he'd seen her at the opening earlier. The smart thing would have been to call off the job and leave, but she didn't. She couldn't. He looked tired--unshaven, red-eyed and somehow diminished in his bespoke suit, like a man going through the ghastly motions of his own funeral.

She caught his eye across the crowded ballroom, and saw his mouth twitch into something that was almost a smile. It was the first time all evening she'd seen him look alive.

Later that night, when he caught her red-handed with a freshly stolen Gutfreund sculpture, she let him cuff her without a struggle. He set the sculpture down, and looked at her with his sad, tired eyes, and she found herself leaning in to kiss him softly on the cheek.

"I'm so sorry," she murmured, and he blinked at her, and the policie were pouring into the room to arrest her before he could say anything back.

She had to burn through two of her best covers to get out of that one, but even to this day she can't bring herself to regret it.