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The Hitter Connection Job

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“He's one of the guys that kept me from falling all the way down. So now, I'm asking the other guy to understand why I'm gonna help him.”

Nate grabbed a bottle of Jameson from behind the now closed brewpub bar and poured himself another generous glass.

Eliot’s words had been echoing in his head for the past several days. Last night’s successful conclusion of the job for Eliot’s friend Toby had, rather than allowing them to recede into the background hum of Nate’s thoughts, only produced new words, which joined with the others in a cacophony that not even alcohol could quiet.

“Not only did you and Lampard ruin my friend Toby's life, but you ruined the lives of the kids he was trying to help.”

Nate wasn’t exactly sure what Eliot’s history was with Rampone, the mark’s attack dog and the man who had beaten Toby, but he knew the man had known Eliot back when he did things that were “way over the line.”

“I'm gonna cut your freaking head off and serve it on a platter.”

He and Eliot had joked about whether the “serve it on a platter” line had been too much, but Nate couldn’t forget the rage and barely concealed hate in the hitter’s eyes as he’d said it. A day later, Nate wondered just how in control of himself Eliot had been. How much had been an act, and how much had Nate been keeping Eliot from “falling all the way down” again?

He downed his glass and poured himself another.

“Nate?” Sophie’s heels clacked to a stop behind him, her hand coming to rest his on shoulder. “I’m heading home.”

“‘Kay,” Nate said, with a little less control over his diction than he’d hoped. “Night.”

He felt, rather than saw, Sophie take in the bottle of Jameson and his response.

She sat down on the stool next to him. “Everything all right?”

He cleared his throat in an attempt to sound like he was telling the truth. “Yeah. Got some other clients to check out, so I’m —”

“Preparing?” He practically heard her raised eyebrow.

Rather than grace that with a response, he took a swig from his glass.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Perhaps it was the gentleness in her voice, or the way her brow furrowed, or the effects of the booze. Or maybe it was a combination of the three.

But he surprised himself when he said, “Just thinking about something Eliot told me when he was trying to convince me to take this job.”

She didn’t say anything, and he loved her for it. She could always tell when he needed solitude, or a push, or an ear to listen.

Which made it easier for him to tell her the truth.

“Apparently Toby and I have something in common,” he said to his whiskey. “We both kept him from falling all the way down. His words.”

She nodded slowly, as if in thought rather than agreement. “Despite his best efforts to convince people otherwise, Eliot does have a way with words.”

She watched him for a few silent moments. He emptied his glass and poured himself another.

“But I’m guessing you’re not drinking in celebration” she said. “Because why would you? It’s not like Eliot’s reticence gives his words extra emphasis, especially with respect to emotions and compliments.”

It wasn’t the emotion or the compliment that bothered him. It was what they represented. But he couldn’t tell her that.

“Of course, compliments have next to no effect on you,” said Sophie. “Guilt, on the other hand …”

Then again, maybe he didn’t have to.

“Or perhaps you simply don’t believe him.”

Nate swallowed another mouthful of whiskey. It was impossible to hide anything from this woman.

Sophie rotated on her stool until she faced the bar rather than Nate. “Did you know that Eliot tried to kill Dubenich back in Boston?”

If Nate had been even a millimeter less of a grifter, he might have choked on his whiskey. As it was, he managed to keep his reaction to a sudden gulp and an aggressively raised eyebrow.

“When?”

She smirked, and he was reminded yet again that his grifting ability was no match for the likes of Sophie Devereaux.

“In spite of your incessant need to control things, you were off comms quite a lot during that job. Too busy practicing your sharpshooting or planning your last words to Dubenich, no doubt.”

The hint of bitterness, try as she might to hide it beneath layers of fondness and teasing, told Nate that his behavior still upset her six months later.

“Yes, I’m aware of your disapproval.” He smirked, keeping his voice as light as possible. “You’re stalling.”

She slowly blinked a few times, unamused and unimpressed, making it clear that if she continued, it was because she wanted to, not because of what he said.

But her features softened as she spoke. “It was when Dubenich stopped me from talking to Latimer, before we sicced Maggie on him. The goons were escorting me out, and Eliot and Quinn fought them off. Eliot grabbed one of the guards’ guns and pointed it right at Dubenich’s head.”

Nate brought his glass to his lips, but his unsteady hand caused a few drops to escape the glass and run down his chin like tears. He wiped them away with the back of his hand.

“I asked him what the hell he thought he was doing, and he said — he said, ‘I’m thinking of saving my friend some trouble.’”

Her voice wavered slightly on the last word. Nate looked up at her and saw that her eyes glistened.

“I begged him to stop, but he ignored me. His hand started to shake until he finally brought his hand down and walked away.”

Nate knocked back the rest of his glass. Did she think that would make him feel better, knowing that Eliot had almost “fallen down” because of him? Again? Why did she tell him that?

“Why didn’t you tell me that?” At her raised eyebrow, he appended, “Earlier.”

“I had this idea that you might not be in an appropriate state of mind for it,” she said. “Crazy, I know.”

Then she leaned toward him, invading his personal space in a way that normally turned him on but now felt claustrophobic. He jerked away from her.

“Here’s another crazy idea,” she said. “Instead of moping and drinking, talk to him.”

Nate snorted. “I don’t think so.”

“That’s your problem, Nate. You always think too much. Sometimes what you need to do is feel.”

Eliot chose that moment to come in from the kitchen. “Hey, guys, I’m gonna —”

He stopped in his tracks as Sophie pulled away from Nate and their conversation immediately ceased. “I interrupt something?”

“No, I was just leaving.” Sophie stood and kissed Nate on the cheek. “I’m too exhausted to be a third wheel. Good night.”

And with that, Sophie Devereaux swept out of the brewpub and into the Portland night.

 


 

Eliot blinked. “How is it even possible for her to be both obscenely obvious and infuriatingly cryptic at the same time?”

“It’s a gift,” Nate said. Then added, under his breath, “And a curse.”

“For her or us?” Eliot shook his head. “Well, I hope she was talking to you because I’m too damned tired to try to decipher Grifter tonight.”

“She was.”

“Good.”

Neither of them said anything for a few seconds.

“Okay, well, I’m headed out, then,” said Eliot.

“Oh, uh.” Nate thought furiously of a way to keep Eliot there — did he even want him to stay? If they didn’t have a talk, Sophie would never let him hear the end of it — and finally decided on the obvious.

“Drink?”

Eliot sighed. “Been a long day. Long week, actually. Maybe tomorrow.”

“Yeah, sure, of course.” Nate spoke in the stuttering chuckle that always came out when he was — not nervous, he didn’t get nervous, just … maybe a little less than confident. It was a reflex, something he’d done since he was a kid and had never been able to shake. “Tomorrow. Or whenever. I’m just going to work on some client stuff.”

He poured himself a fresh glass of Jameson and took a drink.

Eliot didn’t move. Nate didn’t dare look up at him, but he knew the hitter was eying him, probably trying to guess his game.

He always had a game. That was the problem.

“On second thought.” Eliot walked around the bar, grabbing a glass on his way. “It’s been a long week. I could use a drink to wind down.”

It wasn’t that Nate hadn’t considered that result. He just hadn’t considered it a likely one.

The chuckle-stutter was back. “Oh, uh, sure.”

Eliot sat down on the stool next to Nate and poured himself a finger of whiskey. He raised his glass.

“Another job well done.”

“Another mark destroyed, another client avenged.” The words tasted more bitter than Nate had intended.

He drank. Eliot didn’t; he watched Nate.

But Nate was already thinking ten steps ahead. That’s what he did. He always had a game, a plan, a reason for everything.

He was thinking about how long Eliot might stay, how drunk Eliot was likely to get, how much Eliot might say while under varying degrees of alcoholic influence. How he might be able to get Eliot to open up and explain why he’d said what he’d said to Nate.

Eliot finally sipped his drink. After a few moments, he asked, “Problem with a potential client?”

“Hmm? No, got quite a few lined up next. Nothing urgent.”

They lapsed into silence again. Nate’s thoughts continued to swirl. He sorted through the files in his mind he didn’t like to acknowledge existed and opened the one on Eliot, went through the list of Eliot’s weaknesses — insistence on repayment of his moral and emotional debts, (over)protectiveness of the people he cared about, guilt about the actions of his past, hopelessness about his ability to make up for said past, secret fear that he was a monster undeserving of forgiveness or happiness or love — and weighed which one would be the best pinch point.

Eliot took another drink and asked, “Everything okay with Sophie?”

Although Nate had expected the question — he and Eliot only had a few non-job-related topics of conversation — the idea of answering it in detail was more than he wanted right now. So, as he decided that, considering their recent job and Toby, pushing on Eliot’s fixation on repayment might be the best approach, he chuckle-stuttered a reply.

“Uh, yeah. Everything’s fine. Great, actually.”

Eliot smirked and brought his glass to his lips. “Good. I wasn’t looking forward to giving you more relationship advice.”

Nate’s thoughts screeched to a momentary halt. “Wh — more?”

Eliot’s smirk widened, and he looked at Nate from the corner of his eyes. “‘White roses are Sophie’s favorite’ definitely qualifies as advice.”

Oh. That.

Nate chuckled minus the stutter. “She wasn’t fooled, you know.”

“Yeah,” said Eliot. “She told me the next day. Parker figured it out, too. But secrecy wasn’t the point.”

“Oh?” Nate wasn’t about to lose a fortuitous opportunity to add to his mental file on Eliot. “What was, then?”

“To put them in a good mood. Lay some groundwork. What you and Hardison did after that was up to you.”

Weakness: Over-protectiveness of those he cares about.

Manifestations: Risking life to protect them from harm; includes emotional/mental harm as well as physical. (Addendum — Corollary: Extends to actively promoting or helping them achieve life goals/romance/general happiness.)

“Uh, thanks,” Nate said.

Considering new information, maybe the best plan would be to press hard on Eliot’s over-protectiveness of the team.

“I’m not stupid,” said Eliot. “Why did Sophie want you to talk to me?”

Strengths: … intelligence, perceptiveness, lulling people into a false sense of security regarding previous.

Even if those people had mental files containing a list of said strengths and were thinking about exploiting his weaknesses at this very moment.

And then Sophie’s words drifted across Nate’s mind, eclipsing Eliot’s file.

“You always think too much. Sometimes what you need to do is feel.”

Sophie was the heart. Nate was the head. He’d stopped allowing his feelings to take control years ago when he’d lost everything. Even now, he wondered: if he’d spent more time thinking and planning and less time feeling back then, could he have saved Sam?

“You should have kept one of those Monets you found. You fence that …”

His heart — no, not his heart, his heart was just a muscle that pumped blood, not a repository for feelings — his limbic system sent signals that caused him to recall the emotional memory of grief at Eliot’s words during that first job. More signals made him feel guilt at the idea that, maybe, if he’d been a thief instead of an insurance investigator, he would have had all the money necessary to save Sam.

He downed the rest of his glass in one gulp, hoping the alcohol, which had already affected his frontal lobe and lowered his inhibitions until he’d confessed his concerns to Sophie, would hurry up and hit his hippocampus and cause some memory loss.

In his years of heavy drinking, he’d discovered that no amount of alcohol would delete those memories and emotions from his brain, but maybe this time would be different. Those years of heavy drinking didn’t keep him from hoping.

But they didn’t keep his inhibitions up, either.

“She told me you held a gun to Dubenich’s head last year.”

Nate had been in danger, and Eliot had been trying to help him. One of Eliot’s weaknesses was his overprotectiveness. Yep, this was definitely all part of the plan to exploit that weakness. Get him drunk and make him talk by bringing up times when the team was in danger.

His frontal lobe wasn’t so impaired that he didn’t see the ambiguity in that thought and the potential issues with that plan.

But that didn’t stop him from pouring himself yet another glass.

Eliot, who had moved to take another drink, stopped at Nate’s comment and lowered his glass without drinking. “And you’ve been stewing about it for the past six months?”

“No, I mean she just told me.”

Eliot turned to look at the door Sophie had exited through a few minutes earlier, blinked, and returned his gaze to Nate. “Why?”

“Apparently I wasn’t in the right state of mind before.”

Eliot rolled his eyes. “No shit. I meant why did she decide to tell you tonight, right now?”

“Why did you try to kill Dubenich?”

Eliot looked away quickly and became suddenly focused on his own drink.

Weakness: Guilt about actions of his past.

Manifestations: Refusal to answer even straightforward questions unless pressed …

“You held a cocked, loaded gun to his head in broad daylight with every intention of pulling the trigger,” Nate pressed. “Why?”

Eliot pushed away from the bar. The grating scrape of the stool against the floor stabbed into Nate’s throbbing temples.

“I’m going home.”

Manifestations (ctnd): … avoidance …

“I thought you didn’t like guns,” Nate said to Eliot’s back.

Eliot whirled around and slammed his open palm on the bar. “I don’t!”

Manifestations (ctnd): … outbursts of anger …

Eliot leaned over the bar, both palms flat, breathing slowly in and out. “Doesn’t mean I can’t use ‘em,” he said softly.

Nathan Ford — Strengths: Planning, strategy, manipulation (including his own people), emotionless execution of previous.

Weaknesses: Asshole.

That was his problem. He’d spent the most of his time for the four and a half years getting into the heads of bad people, looking for weaknesses, and now it was pretty much all he saw in everyone. He couldn’t turn it off. He didn’t want to be like this, hadn’t expected this when they’d started, but he didn’t know how to fix it. He’d spent the past six months, three of them on his boat in solitude, trying to think of a way to stop.

“That’s your problem, Nate. You always think too much. Sometimes what you need to do is feel.”

Thinking instead of feeling was the only way he could do his job. He’d tried doing both the first year, and the only thing he’d gotten out of it was resentment from the team and an understanding of what it felt like to be a non-functioning alcoholic.

But he’d been thinking since Sophie left the brewpub, and as a result, he’d attacked Eliot — his friend, his family — so mercilessly at his weakest points that the man who so rarely lost control of his emotions was currently going through breathing exercises to calm himself.

Thinking was easier, but he was so damned tired of tearing people down. He wanted to build something.

If feeling was the way to do it, then he’d give it a try.

He knocked back his drink — to boost his confidence and attack his critical thinking — and found he didn’t know what to say to fix it.

Breaking people was so much easier than building them up.

“I — I just want to know why.” This time he stuttered without the chuckle.

Eliot grasped the edge of the bar in a white-knuckled grip.

“It’s my job to protect you.” His voice was barely above a whisper. “From everything. Including you.”

Weakness: Over-protectiveness. (Addendum — Protection from external/internal dangers, including —

No.

Nate forced himself to focus on Eliot’s words. Not just on what they meant, but Eliot’s tone and body language, too. And, most importantly, how they felt.

Eliot had picked up a gun — a weapon he despised — and held it to the head of Victor Dubenich, the man who had killed Nate’s father, who had used the memory of Nate’s son against him, who had attempted to kill the two of them and Parker and Hardison. And he’d done it not out of revenge nor even to protect Nate from Dubenich’s machinations, but to keep Nate from killing Dubenich himself.

Something inside Nate’s chest ached. Eliot had told him only a few days ago that Nate was one of the men that had kept him from falling all the way down. But he’d been willing to fall down again — for Nate.

“Protect me?” Nate asked. “At the expense of your soul?”

“My soul’s already lost,” Eliot said. “Yours ain’t.”

The matter-of-factness in Eliot’s voice felt like a stab in the heart, a million times more painful than if the words had carried any emotion.

Eliot had tried to talk Nate down from his murderous ledge during the job, to explain how killing a person would change him. Nate had ignored him.

Except he hadn’t. In the end, Nate had taken Eliot’s talk — and the rest of the team’s words and actions — to heart and didn’t kill Dubenich. But Eliot hadn’t known that when he’d cocked that gun.

Maybe he still didn’t know.

“You did protect me,” said Nate. “I listened.”

“I know.”

“Do you?”

Eliot didn’t say anything or even move. He just stared at nothing.

Nate topped off Eliot’s still full glass and slid it down the bar. Eliot caught it without looking and downed it — three fingers at least — in two gulps. He let his arm drop back to the bar. The glass made a loud clunk as it made contact. He never looked away from the blank spot in front of him.

Nate had seen Eliot express a lot of emotions, but watching him express nothing — that hurt. He forced himself to focus on the guilt that churned in his stomach and the sadness that pressed hard against the inside of his chest. This was his fault — his thinking had made Eliot feel this way.

So he said the first thing that came to mind — the thing he’d been thinking and feeling all week.

“How did I keep you from falling all the way down when all I seem to do is push you?”

Eliot slowly turned to look at Nate. His face twisted in confusion and froze that way. After what seemed like an eternity, he let out a single-syllable chuckle, mirthless and dry but enough to smooth the confusion away.

“So that’s what this is about.” He shrugged. “You didn’t. I only told you that so you’d help Toby.”

Nate knew that was a lie. (Weakness: Fear that he’s unworthy of forgiveness/happiness/love. Manifestations: Avoidance — includes ignoring/hiding/lying about emotions.) But for a moment he considered pretending to believe it to save them both from this conversation.

“Let’s at least be honest with each other,” Nate said. “I just want to understand. In that warehouse with Moreau’s men, and with Dubenich … I’ve put you in positions that force you to consider or even commit —” He reached for the bottle of Jameson and emptied it into his glass. There was barely a finger left. “How did that help you?”

Eliot snatched the glass and knocked it back before Nate could even move to grab it. “You’re an idiot.”

“You just stole my booze, and I’m the idiot?”

The corners of Eliot’s mouth twitched. “Technically it’s Hardison’s booze. And yes.” He sat down heavily on his stool. “I didn’t kill Dubenich. I couldn’t kill Dubenich. I wanted to kill him — well, I wanted to want to. But I don’t do that anymore. And if you don’t think that’s because of you and them and Leverage, then you’re an idiot.”

“But the warehouse —”

“That wasn’t —” Eliot rolled his empty glass between his fingers. “That was different. I was doing my job. Protecting the team. I wish there had been a different way, but those men were — It’s not the same.”

Nate shook his head. “Why not?”

“Because I’m still me.” Eliot sighed. “When you do the kind of things I did, it changes you. I stopped feeling things. I didn’t feel anything for a long time because if I did, it would have eaten me up inside. I know that doesn’t make sense —”

“It makes perfect sense,” Nate said softly.

It made too much sense. Not feeling made destroying easier.

Some of the tension — which Nate hadn’t consciously noticed until now — went out of Eliot.

“Parker didn’t get it.” It was both an explanation and an acknowledgment.

“Last night Parker ate a meal that made her feel different,” said Nate. “Now she’s on a trip to find other things that make her feel different. She got it eventually.”

Eliot’s smile was small but proud.

Something in Nate’s chest made him feel different, and he understood that smile.

“Toby taught me how to cook, and I started to feel stuff again,” Eliot said. “You made us into a team, and I realized I can create something. Start to heal the damage I’ve done.”

For a second, Nate considered telling Eliot everything — the black book, Highpoint tower, the plan, his problem. About wanting to build something. Eliot had always been his check, making sure his thinking didn’t go too far and get someone hurt.

But he couldn’t tell anyone else about the plan; it was bad enough that he’d needed to bring Hardison in this early. He needed Eliot to have plausible deniability so that if things went south, Eliot could save the others.

Before he pushed his thoughts aside, he made one more note.

“I realized I can create something. Start to heal the damage I’ve done.”

Weakness: Hopelessness about ability to make up for past. N/A

He asked, “What about today, with Rampone?”

Eliot looked amused. “Was I that convincing? I know Sophie’s been helping me out, but …”

“He beat Toby.”

“And he’s going to jail for it.” Eliot’s voice was granite. “But I’m fully capable of controlling myself around a scumbag like that. It was an act.”

That was the truth.

“And if I’m gone? What then?”

Eliot raised an eyebrow. “You going somewhere?”

“No,” Nate lied. “But nothing lasts forever.”

Eliot narrowed his eyes, and Nate wished he’d kept his cards closer to his chest. Sometimes Eliot was smarter even he gave him credit for.

But the moment passed, and Eliot turned thoughtful. “The last time I saw Toby before this week was ten years ago. The people who really make a difference ... it doesn't stop once they're gone. You should know that better than anyone.” He stood. “And on that note, I’m off. It’s been a long week.”

“Yeah,” Nate said. “How’s the arm?”

Eliot was a pro, but occasionally even he got injured. Rampone had gotten in a nasty slash with a kitchen knife.

Eliot rolled his eyes. “Fine. My ego, on the other hand …”

Nate snorted.

“You headed out?”

“Nah,” Nate said. “Got a few clients to check out.”

“You know,” said Eliot, “I bet it’s been a long week for Sophie, too.”

“I thought you said no more relationship advice?”

Eliot smiled. “I said I wasn’t looking forward to it, not that it wouldn’t happen.” He turned out the lights behind the bar and headed to the door.

“Nate?”

“Yeah?”

“You’d tell me if you were planning something, wouldn’t you?”

“Of course.”

Nathan Ford — Strengths: Planning, strategy, manipulation (including his own people), emotionless execution of previous, secrecy.

Weaknesses: Asshole. (See all of above.) Distancing himself from those he cares about.

“Good night, Eliot.”

Eliot watched Nate for a second before nodding. “Night.”

And then he left.

Nate grabbed his glass and another bottle of Jameson from behind the bar and headed to the back room and his Highpoint Tower plan.

If he and Leverage had helped keep Eliot from falling to his destruction, maybe Eliot and Leverage could keep him from doing the same.

Eliot wasn’t the only one who wanted to build something.