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Everyone has their curses.

//

The thing is, even from the first moment she understands what she is, she doesn’t understand the point of being a shapeshifter, of just looking different, if you can’t embody that difference.

Sure, there are shifters who make a game out of it. Who stand in circus tents, on street corners and pick one of the awed and baffled audience members to clone, right before your very eyes! She’s always hated this, the way the eyes are never quite match, the way the voices are never, never right, the way they move like clowns in someone else’s skin. She has always thought there is no point in looking different if you can’t manage to be different, too.

Good shapeshifters are the ones nobody knows have shifted.

There are very few good shapeshifters, to the best of her knowledge and in her humble opinion.

It becomes a game to her, when she first leaves town with a borrowed face.

The faces are deceptively easy, getting the dimples in the correct place, the freckles the right darkness. She could always get close, but she had no use for close, she wasn’t sloppy, she wanted perfect. She spent a lot of time as a phone operator then, because it never mattered to the customers if she used to same voice twice and she was often alone. It was harder to mimic the accents and patterns of speaking, but she was nothing if not dedicated to the cause.

In the middle of perfecting this grift, she doesn’t quite realize she’s become something else. The other shifters stopped seeing her as one of them. Her eyes didn’t glint quite the same color when they caught her in a flash, she never had to shed her skin to be something else. People just looked at her and saw whatever she damn well wanted them to see.

Everyone knew she existed, but she becomes a ghost, a legend. Her real name and face and voice and life lost in a small town she’s vowed to never say the name of again. They speak of her in whispers, with admiration, with fear and revulsion, marks and other shifters alike. She plays them all the same.

The Soul Fiddler,” they call her and, oh, it’s so gaudy, she hates how much she loves it.

The Soul Fiddler. So Fi. Sophie.

She keeps this name, largely on a nostalgic whim.

The only whim she allows herself.

//

Nate can always tell it’s her, no matter what she does, though.

It’s a little unclear which first meeting is the real one, because unlike the rest of his significant memories, there’s no familiar glimmer to track the trajectory of his own life. Normally, he can pick out the glowing gem of what actually happened, keep track of it in relation to the present. With Sophie it’s almost like she’d crashed in and made such a mess everything went murky, left him dizzy and seeing double, too focused on breathing to see. There’s always the chance this was intentional, but he doesn’t waste the breath to ask her.

(After all these years and various lifetimes, he’s learned to recognize the kinds of questions he could ask that she would willingly answer, even if he’s not always sure she’s telling the truth. He doesn’t ask this, because he’s not sure he wants the answer, isn’t really sure it changes anything.)

Time is difficult for Nate, because it’s happening all at once. His life is a haphazard mess of things that could’ve happened as much as they might happen later or not at all. There are not many others like him; they are mostly old, mostly alone, always telling him not to chase these paths. Do not to strain to see the futures, ignore the odd flashes of the past, you are not a prophet, don’t chase the rabbit down the hole, you’ll get stuck.

 Nate thinks about Sam and all the futures he saw for him and how none of them came to be and decides he doesn’t trust this power when he chases it, much less the flashes that come unprovoked.

Still, Sophie’s first meeting is something he can’t quite keep his head away from.

The further he gets from that first meeting, the more muddled it gets, so he can’t help glancing at it, studying it, honestly, again and again, trying to make the details align properly. So far, the only thing he’s been certain about, in as much as he can be sure of anything about her, is that she’s wearing his ring. He’s seen it on a hundred different versions of her hands—old and shadowed in candle light, young and raising glasses of champagne, trembling around cups of tea, in his hand, in Maggie’s hand, on Sam’s head, things that have never, never happened.

All of them with that the ring.

To settle his sense of time, he tends to treat the night she gave it to him as their first.

There is nobody in the world who ignores Sophie Devereaux when she wants their eyes on her and Nate is no exception. That night, he looks at her because that’s what her very presence demands, but also because he knows, in his heart of hearts, that he recognizes her.

At the very least, it’s clear she recognizes him. The quick and dangerous way a smile stretches across her face scares him, which he finds fascinating. He can’t help but try and glance around his timeline, try to figure out where it crossed hers as he turns, crossing the room directly for her.

“You’ll blind yourself if you keep looking that hard,” she warns him and he doesn’t think she means at her, least not right now.

“You wanted me to look,” Nate repeats. Repeats? He’s never spoken to her before, he doesn’t know why that sounded like a quote. He’s getting dizzy trying to sort out her because he’s never met her, but suddenly she’s everywhere in his memories.

 “I’ve spent quite some time looking for you, it’s only fair,” she says, voice at once tired and delighted.

Nate looks at her, the way she doesn’t fit here. Her hands are too clean, her dress is catching the light too brightly. She smells like shampoo that doesn’t exist yet and she’s wearing a ring he hasn’t given her yet. “You’re not real.”

“No, but who’s to say you are?” she replies teasingly, motioning around, at the people whose faces he couldn’t identify under duress. “Or any of this is?”

 That’s a lot to tackle, so Nate doesn’t bother trying. He nods at her hand, “That’s mine,”

She raises her hand to look at it for a moment, before clicking her tongue. She slides it off her finger. “Here. Have it then,” she says. He doesn’t remember moving his hand to take it, but it’s suddenly hot in his palm, glowing bright and constant in his timeline. “Give it back to me when you’re ready.”

It sounds like a goodbye and, right on cue, she downs her drink and stands. “Ta.”

“Can I at least have your name?” Nate asks, because chasings ghosts is a fruitless venture, even for someone as practiced and magicked as he is. But he knows with a certainty that should be alarming, that she’ll be back. There’s too much of her everywhere for them to not cross paths again.

And perhaps he should’ve known better than to ask it that way, because when she smiles her eyes sparkle with something that can’t be entirely human. She lets him see that, lets him know she’s seen enough to know better.

“No, you may not,” she answers him brightly, firm, “but you can call me Sophie.”

//

Parker knows she had a name Before, but she doesn’t remember it.

It’s very important that she distinctly doesn’t remember it, because if she doesn’t have it, nobody can steal it from her. If Archie wanted her to remember nothing else, it was the power of names.

After all, she’s fairly certain high fae folk wouldn’t have a name as plain as Archie.

When he’d asked for her name, she doesn’t know why she’d said Parker, only that once it was out it felt as though it’d locked in place. He likely knew it wasn’t true, but it was right and so it stuck. With a quick motion of his hand, the veil splits and Parker is a name that belongs on that side, not in too-tight shoes on the grassy knoll behind a school full of bullies never quite fast enough to catch her. She isn’t supposed to be out here during school hours, nor is she supposed to speak to mischievous-eyed men in fairy circles, who can bend reality with their hands. But, she has been told, adults are also not supposed to hurt kids.

It’s only fair that she break the rules, too, right?

Archie isn’t there when she finally leaves, but she doesn’t have to break the circle. She just slips out of it—she’s like that, squirrelly—and if her newest friends, a handful for almost every day spent on that, choose to stay clinging to her, then she can’t begrudge them that. There’s a whole world to explore out there.

It’s been years, a decade maybe inside, but once she hits the real world, she realizes time hasn’t passed the same way for them or for her, really. She expected to look older. She thinks she looks younger. She also finds human language quite difficult at this point, something that alarms any teacher or psychiatric professional allowed near her. There is a lot of whispering in those early days, but nothing she can’t hear if she tries.

She’s doesn’t understand why some people call her a changeling. She’s exactly who she’s always been, just…smarter. Magical. If her parents got something else instead of a baby girl, well… Parker got something else instead of parents. That’s how fair exchange words.

Though, she’s not exactly sure what she’s exchanging when she joins the team, joins Leverage.

There’s a part of her, the feral—the fairy part that wants to make this into an ornate deal, wants to trap them in debt to her so she always knows where she stands, so she has leverage over them. They feeling doesn’t last long, though, because people may be difficult for her, but as tricky as they are, fairies don’t actually lie, least of all hers.

Most people keep their magic in their chest, but Parker has fairies under her feet, in her hands, they float with her as she leaps from impossible heights, feels her way through blind space, picks impossible locks. They never got far from her, but now, she realizes, some of them stay around the others. Sometimes they leave luck in Nate’s liquor or sparkle distractingly on Sophie’s jewels. Almost always, though, she can spot them around Hardison’s hands while he’s typing, tucked inside Eliot’s fists or shielding his knuckles, sometimes around his ears when he feigning sleep. She doesn’t call them back, doesn’t feel as though they’ve abandoned her. More to the point, oddly enough, she doesn’t feel like they’ve been stolen.

The day she watches them jam a gun that should’ve taken Eliot away from her and she decides, no, they haven’t been stolen at all.

They’re protecting her, same as always.

//

Eliot gets good at fighting so nobody will ask him to cook.

It’s never been a secret to him, he’s known what he since he was a young child, maybe not even old enough to be out of the wooden high chair in his mama’s kitchen. There hasn’t ever been a time when he couldn’t identify his mother’s food and the mood she was in when she made it. None of the other kids ever understood why he wasn’t ever excited to get McDonald’s for dinner, or buy the buffet food from chain arcades. For a while, he honestly lets himself think they all just like the bland, emotionally-plastic taste of the food.

It wins him a lot of hearts early on, when he starts learning to cook and it isn’t odd enough for him to fear it yet, he loves it. He could woo girls with the taste of his affection in cookies, he could soothe his scared and sick loved ones to sleep with his soups.

Eventually, he could even do it on purpose, too.

Of course, it’s that control that later creates problems.

Eliot would like to believe that the few soldiers he trusted never sold him out, that his C.O. kept his knowledge of his powers behind closed doors and destroyed beneath bars of blacked-out text, but he can never be sure. Superiors came to him sometimes, with requests he couldn’t always refuse and an unwillingness to hear the delicate nature of magically tailored food.

The gun range saw more and more of his time, as did covert missions requiring him to familiarize himself with a different set of knives, a more brutal way of using his hands. He learned four languages fluently, two others reliably, all selected in the areas most in need of soldiers and off-the-books mercs; he learned them with such ease, got himself out of so many tight squeezes people started rumors about him being a silvertongue. Even still, he sank easily into the role of being a hitter, a gun-for-hire like it was a second skin. Or perhaps, better put, a cowl and shield.

There were no kitchens for black ops.

The magic never stops itching, but given what Eliot is doing, he doesn’t necessarily think he deserves a reprieve from the feeling. It’s background noise, a sort of discomfort he’s well versed in ignoring. It’s enough for him that he’s not abusing it anymore.

He joins Leverage and later, once they open the brewery, he finds his hands hesitating even after having convinced himself this isn’t a terrible idea. Because he stands there and this time, it’s like the kitchen knows he’s not just passing through for a knife, won’t abuse its wares. There’s power in the room now, faint and far away, but not forgotten. Coming home after a long time away, recognizing the scent of your own house. Eliot knows what he is.

Kitchen witch!” Parker exclaims around a mouth full of soufflé. It should make Eliot mad, but he can hear the delight in her voice, see the odd sparkle that sometimes shows up in her eyes but somehow doesn’t seem to come from her. It’s affectionate, nothing like the sound like the mothers clutching their little cross necklaces and hissing “devil child!” in his younger years. Nor is it Moreau murmuring against his throat, “Insatiable lust has it place in a war, too,” or hissing in his ear “Poison it. Use all that anger for something.” It’s nothing like that, because Parker is nothing like them. She’s not delighted for any reason other than now she knows something new about him.

Still, Eliot glares at her like a reflex, but she grins like she knows better. He slides her another sample, that one probably just as bright with grudging affection as the first. “Yeah, and what about it?”

It doesn’t get any less weird, the feeling of all of them carrying one of his best kept secrets around, but it does feel good to cook again. It’s like stretching a tight muscle every time, even has to be careful about not forcing any particular emotion into it when he does so. Eliot is nothing if not careful, with his team especially. They like his cooking, not because it’s magicked, just because he’s a damn good chef.

And the only one on the team.

Sophie is keen on having things catered, dragging Nate along with her, and Parker would be more than happy to live on processed sugar for the rest of her life. Hardison isn’t much better, but there’s a brief flare of hope that when he starts caring about alcohol, the menu won’t just fall to Eliot.

Eliot quickly advises that hope to fuck off, because apparently he is the only one with a sense of taste and he’s sure the others are beyond saving.

Hardison’s first batch of beer tastes like swill, but what really makes Eliot spit it out is how sticky it is with emotion. The man is no witch, but he’s got a bleeding heart, feelings leaking out all over the place. He leaves traces of himself on everything he touches, the beer and Eliot—coughing, throat thick with it now—are no exception. “Damn it, Hardison!

“Oh, come on!” Hardison exclaims, jumping up to grab a towel, “It can’t taste that bad, you drama queen!”

It tastes like endless affection and determination with a hint of nerves and like he wants Eliot specifically to be pleased and impressed and shapeless desire and is that—? Ok, wow, there’s a lot happening in this fucking glass.

“It tastes like you,” Eliot accuses, scrubbing his tongue with the sort of inelegance he would never show anywhere else, but he didn’t plan on having a mouthful of Hardison’s emotional bathwater today, jeez.

Hardison rears back, looking genuinely offended and stupid with his hands on his hips. “Excuse me? What’s wrong with that? I’ll have you know, I’m probably a delicacy in some—.”

“Not if they’re choking on your feelings,” Eliot barks and notices Hardison pause. Then he pauses at that, feeling a little jolt of concern at the sudden stillness in Hardison. “What the hell was going on when you made this, man?”

Hardison looks away from him to the glass, spins it in the ring of condensation on the table. “Kinda forgot you could taste stuff like that,” he laughs quietly, then shrugs, “I wasn’t feeling any different than usual.”

For some reason, that information is a lot to process. Eliot swallows back the taste of Hardison’s affection, the strongest taste still lingering in his mouth. He wonders if he could teach Hardison to keep it out of his food, wonders if he would teach him to. There’s an odd surge of protectiveness in his chest and he looks away. “...That’s a lot to feel, Hardison,” he comments, mopping up the mess he made.

Even with his face turned down, he doesn’t miss the guileless look on Hardison’s face, a wide and near-cocky smile stretching over his mouth as he tosses his arms out. “Bleeding heart,” he says, “You’re lying if you don’t think I’m a delicacy.”

Eliot doesn’t feel the need to acknowledge that comment. He picks up the beer and dumps it down the drain with more force than strictly necessary. “I’m not tasting anything else until you don’t bleed all over it.”

“You make it sound so unsanitary,” Hardison complains, snatching the mug back, shaking it at Eliot. “Watch, I got this. You’re gonna love it, you’ll sleep with a bottle on your bedside table, right beside your gun.”

“Bite me,” Eliot snaps, likely as expected, but in a flash, he can actually see it happening, remembers it happening.

Eliot Spencer never met his granddaddy, but he knows what his happiness, what his laughter feels like. His mama kept a jar of his bitters on her nightstand; not to drink or use, just to hold and laugh with tears in her eyes. Eliot didn’t know enough to miss him, but he felt enough for it to tickle through the glass, laughing with her and thinking of a tired man with a big laugh who wanted everything in the world for his little girl. Later, Eliot would taste it for the first and feel tears prick his eyes, too, because he was old enough to have experienced the touches grief, and as such, of course, learned the extent of love.

Watching Hardison go, still tasting his emotions—their connection—tight in the back of his throat, Eliot realizes it’s never occurred to him to worry whether or not someone else’s emotions could be his favorite flavor.

//

Nana’s house had been the first home where Hardison hadn’t been expressly prohibited from mentioning the Strings, and he imagines that’s why he wound up staying.

They’re hard to explain and that saved him from some trouble at first. Everyone thought he had bad eyes, making every ray of light streak though his vision. One mother guessed he might have synesthesia, another thought he had True Sight and was seeing spirits. She was the closest and, as a result, was also his least favorite. Holy water is not meant to be poured in the eyes.

So by the time he reaches Nana’s house, he’s learned to keep his mouth shut about who’s connected to who and exactly how tightly. He’s not ruining any more marriages by being chatty, but he’s also not so keen on ignoring what he sees. He likes being the guy that knows everything, being That Guy makes you hard to touch, can make you rich on the internet.

At first, he wasn’t very good at it, which is exactly how Nana caught him in the first place.

Even now, he can’t exactly remember what he was trying to find that was so far away. Maybe he just got curious and tried to follow a stray thread, but whatever he was looking for, it took him all of about twenty minutes of searching to get lost. Hardison was good at seeing the connections between people and things, but the internet is all connection. Just about everyone and everything that has ever existed, all in one place, all screaming towards one another, a tangle, a knot, so much to see and hear and Alec was a twelve year old boy losing him in the fray, unable to hear himself over everyone else.

The loss is physical, too, but Hardison doesn’t realize until Nana’s voice cuts through the noise like a slap and it occurs to him that, oh yeah, he has a body, where’d it go?

Hardison remembers his hands pressed so hard between hers they hurt, the numbness fading away into an awful sting that he didn’t want to stop. If it stopped, he wouldn’t feel anything at all and that’d be worse. Looking down, he could only see the space between her hands, his missing at the wrists and panic making his breath wheeze in his chest, but he felt it, felt them, his hands were still there. Nana squeezed them and he tried to breath around the pain and fear, vision blurred with tears. She damn-near threw out the computer that day and he can’t exactly hold that against her.

“Never leave your body behind,” Nana says sharply, not angry, but sick with worry and what he will later understand as grief. “Do you hear me, boy?”

Hardison could only nod, half crying with his head on her shoulder and the smell of her hair grease in his nose, his hands still between hers as he watched them slowly creep their way back to the real world. Nana refusing to let him go until they are solid and Hardison proves he can move his fingers like normal, even then she hangs onto him, gets right in his face.

“You can teach yourself to stretch, but never leave your body,” she’d said seriously, and Hardison will remember for the rest of his life, “If you leave it empty, who’s to say what could jump in after you?”

And really, Hardison should probably be worried about that sort of thing, what, with the line of work he’s chosen. There’s a certain comfort to thinking he’s got the best team in the world, but you don’t have to be the best fighter out there to knock someone on their ass. They’re all the best at what they do, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others out there who are pretty damn close. Some of the others are their enemies, willing to jump at the first sign of an empty vessel.

But Hardison is a hacker in a way that doesn’t just end with computers, no, that’s two-bit stuff. He’s got the power to hack into people, into relationships, passing up on that would be a waste of talent, and Hardison is talented. That’s the job, that’s providing leverage; pulling out all the stops for someone who’s out of options.

The trail in the real world goes cold, so of course, of course he goes back into the internet. Of all the things the internet is known for, inspiring caution is not one of them. It’s rare that plain old hacking fails him, but he can’t scare Nana if she isn’t here, so he will occasionally lean out of himself, just a little, to get a closer look at a connection.

Are they friends are lovers? Was she there or did she just hear the story? Is it brightly colored, but frail inside, easy to snap if he gets the right person to say the wrong words? Those sort of details have to be examined up close and Hardison is the only one who can do it, so he does.

Scares the holy hell out of Parker first time she comes in to find the sunlight streaming through his extremities, but hey, he wasn’t so far gone that when she shouted he couldn’t hear it. It just took him a minute—or, you know, ten—to find his way back to her. (He’d instinctively started looking for Nana first, but when he feels flashes of frantic magic inside his missing parts, feels a thousand tiny bright, shining pieces of Parker, he remembers he has a body and where it is.)

“I’m ok!” he exclaims, launches to his feet, but his leg is all pins and needles and he crumples, only held up by Eliot and oh, when had he gotten there? “Ouch, shit,” he looks down at his hand, the pattern on Eliot’s shirt faintly visible through it. “I’m here.”

“Are you?” Sophie asks, and—Sophie?

Actually, she doesn’t look like herself just then—hair too light, eyes too green—but yeah, he’s sure, that’s her. Her alarm lights their connection in a way a new soul can’t hide, a stranger wouldn’t be that afraid for him, good to know.

“I’m fine,” he says, and Eliot believes him enough that he looks like he’s considering throwing him out the damn window, the weird panic twisting in his chest the only thing actually stopping him.

“The hell you are, where are your hands?

Hardison shakes out his leg, letting Eliot bear his weight for as long as he’ll tolerate it. “They’re on the way,” he answers, “I know who killed Samira.”

For once, Hardison is grateful for Nate’s single minded conviction, as the case distracts everyone enough that he doesn’t get any questions. Watching his hands type—keeping himself out of the computer—he watches them solidify back to normal by the time they get back to the pub to debrief.

They’re waiting for him expectantly and he feels a juvenile bit of nerves flash in his stomach. Juvenile, because he isn’t a child anymore and they aren’t going to do anything to him, he knows that. But his nerves have been shot all day, like they’re still trying to find their way back to where they’ve always been, so he still sighs as he sits at the table.

“So...” Nate starts, only for Eliot to cut him off, putting a beer on the table in front of Hardison.

“What the fuck was that?” he asks, “Didn’t mention you were part ghost.”

Hardison gives him a look. “Do I look dead to you?”

“Do you wanna?” Eliot challenges right back and Hardison is impressed, if they weren’t sharing a connection, he would really believe him. As it stands, he doesn’t doubt Eliot would pin him to the wall if he said even one more smart thing, but saying smart things is his whole thing.

So maybe the story gets embellished a little, but well, Parker can talk to fae and Nate’s a T.A.R.D.I.S. short of being a time traveler. Eliot can cook emotions into food and Sophie can make souls, it’s not like he’s going to be the weirdest person in this room if they know he can do more than just sense people’s emotions

“Trying to trace long strings for strangers is always harder, but I can do it.” Hardison motions over at his screens, wincing apologetically even as he admits, “Going through the computer makes it worse, because I have to sort through all these other bullshit strings that touch theirs and—It’s all tangled, I guess, it’s weird.” Thinking about it a moment, thinking about how for a split second he’d been certain Parker screaming for him was his Nana—which, wow, that’s never happened beforehe swallows, “It’s like everything that’s ever happened is happening all at once.”

Nate’s gaze snaps up. “That’s a long way to fall,” he says. Hardison doesn’t respond to that because, yeah, yeah, it is. He’s not going to waste his breath waving it off when he knowing damn well Nate knows as well as anyone.

Eliot almost says “Never fucking do that again, but they both know their lives are too messy to ask for promises like that. He stands up, turns away, because he can tell by Hardison’s face he can feel what he thought almost exactly and he can’t take being seen so thoroughly when he’s still prickly with fear. “Damn it, Hardison…”

“How do we get you back?” Parker asks reasonably, unfolding from where she’d had her arms locked around her knees. “If you leave again, how do we bring you back?”

Hardison looks up at her, reaches out for her, visibly relieved when she scoots closer on the table to take his hand. “I could find for you without losing anything. I’m—” Hardison stops himself, motions between them in a way that doesn’t actually mean anything to Eliot (let alone Nate and Sophie), but makes Parker nod.

“You’re already here,” she says, motioning around herself.

“And wrapped around your little finger,” Hardison agrees with an easy smile.  His face does something complicated, though, and he looks down at their hands, his once again corporeal. “Your Friends brought me back.”

Parker looks a little surprised by that, then excited. “You can see them?”

Hardison shakes his head. “No, girl, but I can feel them.” They make her connections glow sometimes, in a way that makes Hardison’s heart clench in his chest to see, her love is luminescent.

“And for the rest of the class?” Eliot says. He doesn’t doubt that Parker’s ‘Friends’ will never leave them as long as she doesn’t, but he’s not a ride the bench sort of guy. He’s a plan A through Z sort of guy and so is Parker, to be fair. “Can I smack you out of your chair or something?”

“Why is violence always your first answer? El, man, we gotta talk about how to play nicely with other—”

“My foot is gonna play nicely with the seat of your pants if you don’t—”

“TLC via TST!” Hardison cuts in dramatically. Eliot still looks like he might kick him, isn’t at all charmed by his rhyme, so he continues. “Sight and sound can be simulated in a computer, but not tastes, smells, or touches,” he explains, then tilts his head. “Well, they’re getting to the point where computers and emulate smells, too, which is unfortunate, but also cool. It’s not widespread yet, but there’s an engineering program at—”

Hardison,” Nate starts and, right, ok, Nate’s connection to them has gone all fuzzy, like he’s looking at sometime else. Whatever it is, it’s making him determined to leave.

“If I smell, feel, or taste something familiar, I remember, oh, hey, I have a body I should be in,” Hardison summarizes.

“Familiar like orange soda?” Sophie asks and rolls her eyes when Hardison grins.

“It was the first thing that worked!”

“Unbelievable,” Eliot scoffs, folding his arms. “If I have to buy that goddamn soda, I’m making you eat better food.”

Hardison doesn’t miss the implication of that. Eliot doesn’t have to do anything, but he will. He’ll cook for him, make him recognize those flavors, because he won’t be the one standing without a way to reach Hardison.

Nate gets to his feet, too, claps his hands. “Great, glad we got that covered. I’m sure Eliot will keep the fridge stocked and Parker’s friends are always going to like your fingers.”

Parker guffaws at that, at the way Hardison looks down at his fingers consideringly. “Yeah, they will.”

And so they do.

It’s not something Hardison makes a habit of, but Parker isn’t missing the fairies she leaves lingering around his hands, it’s not like it hurts to use them. Not anymore than usual anyway. If he ever has to jump into a computer, it’s nice knowing he has… a tether, now.

Leaning out over a ledge isn’t nearly as scary when you’ve got a rope tied around your wrist, this coming from a guy with a healthy aversion to heights. Parker finds the analogy hilarious; Eliot not so much.

Shocker. Hardison knows how Eliot feels about his leaking heart, about how willingly he slides out of his own body for the greater good; he doesn’t have to Look at him to see that.

Still, after every time, he takes a moment to reach for Eliot, just with part of his awareness. Less rappelling off a cliff, more like a hand out a car window; waving against the wind, but never in the path of danger. He touches the string between he and Eliot, not to read it, he’s not going to cheat, just to feel it there, the fact that it is still there. Eliot freezes every time, but doesn’t say anything, not even to curse him out or tell him to stop.

Hardison pulls his hand back without saying anything either.

//

The thing about having so many magicals, Eliot thinks, is that there wasn’t a good way to anticipate how their abilities will work with one another’s.

They’re a deck made of all wild cards, that’s why they work, they have to be hard to classify. Still, the longer you play with the same trick deck, the more you’re supposed to recognize the patterns hidden in the designs.

Sophie loves a good show, but her confidence in herself never comes across as reckless, even when it is vain. She is undoubtedly the best at what she does, and she knows it, regardless of how suddenly she has to do it. Eliot stops worrying about her alters holding up under scrutiny when it takes him a solid seven minutes to realize why the Colombian guy across the street had been starting at him, only to then make a beeline for him. Sophie’s voice coming out of his mouth was the only reason Eliot realized he wasn’t in for an actual fight in broad daylight.

It becomes a game for her, to see how long it takes him to realize. The time is shortening which makes her proud and exasperated in equal measures.

Nate doesn’t trust himself to use his sight intentionally unless desperate, so he’ll only ever gets better under duress. It makes his power finicky sometimes, which Eliot knows good and goddamn well he could fix if he let himself learn to. But Eliot also knows if he did all he could and picked the timeline that killed off his only son... he can’t say he’d be particularly eager to try either. Even without Foresight, Nate can make up for being an unreliable narrator by having a team reading alongside him. Eliot doesn’t doubt Nate’s genius, but he doesn’t trust him more than his own good sense, not with his... Well. Not with Hardison and Parker’s lives, anyway.

Then again, Hardison and Parker create their own set of problems for Eliot. They never get any less sticky, they keep getting stickier.

Over time, Sophie and Nate have solidified for Eliot. A debonair king and queen, damn near untouchable with heads held high above everyone else, picking up wars civilians didn’t even start and couldn’t finish for themselves. Eliot and the others are lucky enough to be in the court, but it’s still different from being the king and queen. They are all a team, but Nate and Sophie are a unit of their own.

Categorizing Hardison and Parker as a unit of their own should be an easy next step, but it doesn’t work, because for some reason they’re stuck to Eliot as much as they’re stuck to each other. Crazy thing is, Eliot is apparently stuck on them, too, which cannot be happening.

Sitting on the couch with Parker’s feet on his shoulder—because it would probably kill her to sit like a normal person for more than five minutes—and Hardison beside him going on about the merits of microwave popcorn, even as he stuffs his face with Eliot’s air-popped and professionally seasoned, gourmet popcorn, is not something that was ever supposed to come out of this job. Tighter connections are easier to read and Hardison isn’t the only one out their looking; this wasn’t supposed to have any more feelings involved than it already did at the start.

And Eliot can’t blame himself, he’s always careful with their food. Keeping anything he might be feeling while cooking for them faint; recognizable, maybe, but in no way compelling, he’s sure of it. Whatever’s got them stuck on him, he didn’t do. And their magic has become second nature to him, he trusts it. Eliot can’t see Parker’s Friends, can’t even really feel them the way Hardison can, but he can see the effect they have on things around him, the way he sometimes gets lucky in a pinch.

The strings take some getting used to, almost more than Hardison’s emotions bleeding into anything he tries to cook, but it’s still…familiar enough to be welcome. Once, Hardison is two blocks away, talking casually to a mark, but Eliot feels the memory of his hand close around his wrist, feels the urgent, urgent his tone over the coms doesn’t betray and is off and running before things get hairy. After, Eliot can’t stop pacing, residual fear a vice in his chest, until he feels Hardison reach for their string and just—breathes. Hardison has promised he doesn’t try and chase Eliot’s other strings and Eliot believes him, but the brush of his consciousness against their connection makes it sing.

Everywhere Eliot goes, he carries pieces of them with him in a way he doesn’t with Sophie and Nate, pieces that make him want to be careful with himself because. Because he has to get back to them, and even if he’s willing to limp back, bloodied and sore, he doesn’t want anything to follow him because this means something to him. Eliot has never had so much, which means he’s never had more to lose.

That’s the other thing about having so many magicals, Eliot thinks again, is that they’re bound to draw attention to themselves one way or another. A lot of it isn’t going to be good.

Eliot isn’t often wrong about that sort of thing.

 //

They don’t even steal the Debtor’s Book, that’s the kicker.

As much as Parker would love to steal a myth, the Book was something even the fae tended to keep their hands off of. There was a rumor that Archie had a page in the book, but nobody was ever willing to mention what it cost him to have it removed. Parker likes all the things she has and would very much like to keep them. Besides, only stupid people think they can control magic as old as the Debtor’s; she’s not stupid nor willing to work for anyone who is. Nate is may be a little reckless, but not he’s not actually dumb.

And yet, one day in the middle of the casual meetup that usually follows a case well closed, Nate stops in the middle of his sentence, eyes clouding over. “Uh—” he says, holding up his hands and looking around somewhere they can’t see. “Huh. Well, that’s not—”

Then time breaks.

Hardison says that’s not what happened, Nate says that can’t have happened if they survived, but Parker knows what she felt. It may have seemed like just a blip, a quick half-second blink in reality, but her Friends whisper with alarm that she’s been gone for hours and she trusts them more than she trusts iphones.

The fairies are suddenly clinging protectively everyone and Hardison nearly knocks her down when he catches her by the arm as he launches away from the table, away from the Debtor’s Book—as threatening as a piece of worn, black leather can be—that’s suddenly on the table between Nate’s hands.

Parker’s hair stands on end as Nate lifts his hands slowly, takes a step away from the table.

“Oh, holy hell,” Hardison says.

Sophie stands with a little more grace, but still moves back to join Nate. “I thought that was just a rumor,” she says, but her fascination is thin, stressed.

“It is,” Nate genuinely looks more curious than concerned and Parker watches the fairies shift around the shape of Eliot’s anger when he notices. He points at the book, “That’s not from our timeline.”

“No, it’s not,” Hardison agrees unsteadily, looks like he might break and run from the room any second. He’s afraid, the fairies pressing harder against his hands not doing enough to soothe him. Parker reaches for his hand, pries it off he arm to hold it, too. “Y’all, those strings aren’t right, there’s something—”

“Do not chase them,” Eliot snaps.

“Oh, believe you me, I don’t want to,” Hardison assures him, “I can’t even look at them right, it’s like they’re—” He squints, then turns away, hand closing around Parker’s, the faint brush of his consciousness on her connection. “There and not.”

“Not from our timeline,” Eliot says again, still staring down Nate. “You screwed around the past before?”

Nate’s lips quirk down. “Didn’t think I could,” then his eyebrows raise. “I don’t think I can.”  

“Not this you,” Sophie points out and Nate looks at her the way he does sometimes, like they’re both keeping the same secret from each other and it involves Feelings.

It makes Parker a little itchy to see, especially with so much else going on. “So what do we do?” she asks, “Not like we can get rid of it, if it’s ours.”

“Why not?” Hardison asks.

“It’s a debtor’s log, right?” Nate says, then shrugs, edging closer. “If we got it, maybe we’re the creditors on some of these.”

“Yeah, and the debtors on others!” Hardison points out frantically, then seems to get the point. “We can’t let someone else get it.”

Parker nods. “If they steal it, we’d owe them for making them take it,” she says, which makes Eliot look at her like she’s losing it. “I mean, whoever dumped it here didn’t want it. If you ask a bad thing of someone, you owe them. And there’s five of us, that’d be five more pages in the book for Leverage.

“Well, that won’t do,” Sophie says, then ignores Hardison’s sputtering to reach and lay a hand on the book. They all hold their breaths, but nothing happens so Sophie picks it up. “Perhaps it just needs to be balanced.”

Nate gives her a look. “Connect someone who owes us four puppy dog tails and give them over to who says we have to take four dogs off his hands?”

“Or embody that person,” Sophie says, “and negotiate a deal.”

Eliot looks like he’s tasting something sour. “We ain’t crossroad demons.”

Sophie laughs. “No, of course not,” she says as she flips open the book, We can also always ask the relevant parties,” Sophie says and Parker wonders if she can fool demons with her souls. Parker believes she could. She turns all the way to the last page. “Ah, yes. Hardison, can you make me an old widow alias? One regularly accused of being a witch, preferably?”

Hardison looks at her wide-eyed, because of course he could, but “Why?

Pointing at the last page, Sophie reads aloud “Under the current possession and ownership, and therefore responsibility, of: Leverage Consulting and it’s relevant associates.

“Oh shit, we gotta balance the demon ledger?” Hardison says, turning in an anxious circle. “How the hell do we balance a demon ledger??”

“Start with page one,” Nate says. “We’ll never get it closed if we don’t get to work on it.”

//

They’re bound to the book, they’re bound to a fucking demon book and Hardison isn’t really the religious type, but he’s keeping silver and rosaries and holy water stocked. He’s carved Devil’s traps and wards into the safe they leave it in when they aren’t working so nothing gets in or out.

Parker says he’s being paranoid, that he would notice if the strings around it suddenly multiplied, that she’s got fairies hovering all over the place that would tell her if the magic changed. It’s not a summoning book, Hardison, it’s a bank statement.

“Woman, I’m not getting caught with my pants down,” Hardison says as he logs another page into the increasingly convoluted spreadsheet he’s putting together. He knows she gets that all these precautions make him feel better, but so does her teasing him, making their connection glow warm, like fairy lights.

It also makes him feel better Eliot lingers in the room every time Hardison gets near the damn thing. “What are you even doing with it so much?”

Hardison spares him a glare. “I’m trying to figure out how to get rid of our very own Death Note without owning anyone…” He looks back down at the book, “A body disposal, unicorn blood, four goats and a purple French whittling knife, what the hell?

Parker leans on his back, reading over his shoulder. “A haunted house should be easy to sell,” she points out, “People go to those for fun.”

Fake ones, Parker!” Hardison exclaims.

Parker blows a raspberry. “What’s the point of a fake haunted house? Ours has real—” she cuts herself off, a genuine flash sparkling on her face with realization. “Ooh! Maybe we could—”

“We’re not keeping it,” Eliot snaps without looking up.

“I do not fuck with ghosts, Parker,” Hardison says.

“You like fairies,” she points out.

“He likes you,” Eliot says and, well, he’s got her there. Hardison turns to kiss her shoulder, pat Eliot’s stomach and get his hand slapped away for his troubles.

“Make yourself useful or move around,” Hardison says, because the book is big, but the internet is bigger. He could use the help.

And for the most part, things do seem to be moving along well enough.

The more obscure tasks take some finagling, but whoever was keeping this book initially seemed to have the same idea as them. There are a lot of debts and credits that sync up rather nicely, Nate putting his understanding of contract law to good use so much he’s starting to sound like a lawyer during off hours. Sophie is having a blast, whisking in and out of characters so quickly Hardison is constantly double taking when she walks into the room. Sending Parker off to steal increasingly bizarre items and deliver them via break-in is not Hardison’s favorite part of this endeavor, but it is Parker’s favorite.

“I got to touch a dragon egg!” Parker comes in saying one day, hand tender and faintly pink, but excitedly holding up an obsidian fragment of shell she was given as a thank-you trinket. “Did you know you have to incubate them in fire?”

Eliot isn’t enjoying this anymore than Hardison, but the multiple people owed safe passage by someone who can’t grant it appreciate him. He’s reluctant to take their tokens of thanks—some of which are literal tokens he doesn’t trust a single shit—but he just nods at their blessings. A few seem to be more than just platitudes—his tomatoes do seem to always be ripe and he does see the color red more clearly, as promised.

Things don’t get really hairy until he agrees to cook for someone.

Hardison hadn’t asked him to do it, had been holding the case in limbo until he could find a loophole that wouldn’t lead Nate to say, “Just ask Eliot.” Because Hardison knows how Eliot feels about his cooking, about being a witch. They are among a privileged few allowed to experience Eliot’s emotions that way and Hardison doesn’t want to exploit that, even if he red row in his excel sheet is making him nervous.

When Eliot sets the requested comfort chili on the main table, in the specified dimpled copper pot, Hardison feels a sharp “don’t” come down their connection before he can even ask. He gives Eliot a thumbs-up. “Do you want to take it or should Parker?” He thinks about Parker eating anything Eliot cooks, regardless of who it was for, and winces. “Or should I take it?”

Eliot sniffs, thrumming with violence. “Sophie’s meeting up with a wife-beater owed an ass kicking.”

Well, be it far from Hardison to get between Eliot and that particular mission. He delivers the food—walks steadily all the way up to the designated geocache, sits it down without spilling—and then sprints all the way back to Lucile.

Things fall apart the second he locks the door behind him, his phone ringing loudly in the silence, scaring the shit out of him. “I just got—” He’s cut off by frantic voices overlapping, but eventually, after failing to calm them down he feels dread rush down his chest. “What do you mean it disappeared?

Hardison can practically hear Nate turning in a circle before things go crashing off a table, a drawer slams open and shut. “I mean we were standing in a locked room and now it’s not even—”

“Can it turn invisible?” Sophie calls.

“What? No,” Hardison says with a lot more authority than he really feels as he fumbles the keys into the ignition. “It’s not a spell book, it’s—”

“Alec,” Parker cuts him off, voice hard and shaky with alarm, “They left a cookbook behind.”

Hardison jerks to look out towards the forest, towards the food he just left behind. Then pulls inside himself, reaches for his most tightly woven strings, and they’re all there, all bright and alive, but one is—

“Parker, where’s Eliot?”

//

Eliot is familiar with torture, will never speak first, even when his captors are being perfectly amicable. He’s well aware of how quickly that can turn around.

If he had to guess where he was, he’d say somewhere out of time because the same move that put the Debtor’s Book on their coffee table put Eliot in this kitchen, staring blankly at a woman who keeps trying to get him to smile. She tells him how rare American kitchen witches are, tells him she’s a collector, not a hunter, she won’t hurt him. Tells him he’s home, relax, he doesn’t have to hurt anyone anymore, he can meet the others when he relaxes. Relax, because he’s not leaving and all the kitchen utensils are magicked and will burn him if he uses them maliciously.

“Then I guess I won’t touch them,” Eliot says, finally smiling. “I’m feeling pretty damn malicious.”

Time doesn’t seem to work quite right here, not to Eliot’s perspective. Maybe if Nate was in this place, a house seemingly in the middle of Nothing, he’d be able to pick it apart, pick an exit out of a timeline Eliot can’t see. Maybe Hardison would be able to read the threads through the air, talk wordlessly to the other people thumping around some other plane of this house. Maybe Sophie could turn into the right soul, whisper the right things to free herself, maybe Parker is a better lock pick than he is, maybe her luck reaches out this far, maybe, maybe, maybe. As it stands, Eliot is getting faint whiffs of things the others must be cooking while he sits alone eating raw fruits and vegetables and testing the locks and windows repeatedly.

There are times he finds himself waiting for them to come to him, but mostly he doesn’t try and kid himself. They don’t know where he is and Nate would never risk something like that, not with the Debtor’s Book in play, not with most of the team still together and working. (The Collector has promised him that, she had no use of them and no desire to hurt him, see? She’s a very nice Collector. Eliot believes her on the first part, but still won't fall prey to stockholm syndrome nearly as quickly as she seems to think he will.) Yet, he can’t help the way his thoughts come back to them, time and time again. Not being able to feel Hardison brushing against his heart strings, or listening to Parker talk about his food and how even the fairies like it stings more than he should really let it.

In the spirit of fairness, this is not the worst prison he could imagine for himself, and if he were really imprisoned for his crimes, it wouldn’t be in a place with a perpetually stocked kitchen and a futon. This isn’t hard, just…lonely. He can live with lonely.

As it turns out, he doesn’t have to, because he’s adopted himself into a family a fucking reckless, stupid morons who apparently for some damn reason wanted him back just as badly as he wanted to come home—home, when did they become that?

At first, Eliot doesn’t know if he’s dying or going home when someone walks in, but it’s not the Curator and he knows whatever this has been, it’s about to be over.

Even right then, in the moment, Eliot wouldn’t be able to describe what this person looks like. They remind him of everyone he’s ever seen, a face that doesn’t look like someone, but everyone all together. It hurts a little to look at them head on, but Eliot doesn’t look away, especially not when he sees the Debtor’s Book in their hands. “Where the hell did you get—?”

“Debtor isn’t the right word for it,” the person says, looking absently down at the book, like one might a magazine they picked up just to give their hands something to do. “Human is a funny language, though, I’m not sure you have a word for it. Swingers? No, that’s something different. Hm. Swappers?”

“Where did you get it?” Because if they have it, they could have his team and he doesn’t have anything to negotiate with besides himself, but he’ll give up that and anything else they care to ask for.

The person looks up at him, motions around back to the open door. “The curator stole it when she stole you,” they answer, “She imagined if she had both, they couldn’t use it to get you back.” They look at it and smile, “Hardison is a clever man, keeping the debts computerized. Apparently, this magic will stretch back to who it’s owed, regardless of who steals it.”

Eliot thinks of Hardison’s thoroughly detailed and obsessively hyperlinked list and wonders how deep he had to jump in to wade through this mess. “And now you’re stealing it?” It may come out a touch accusatory.

“No.” They get closer to Eliot and Eliot doesn’t bother moving, just this once, doubts he could do a single thing about it if they truly wanted to hurt him. “Your friends burned a number of very big favors on you,” they say, eyeing Eliot consideringly. “All the stories of people owed favors by the gods, they could ask immortality, blessings, infinite wealth, but oh, so many of you cry, just return my love unto me.”

Eliot doesn’t touch the end of that, can’t think too hard on it if it’s just being dangled in front of him to be snatched away. “You saying you’re a god?” he asks skeptically and it makes them laugh.

“Some say,” they answer, “But I am not your good, don’t presume to pray to me.” They say and place the Book in Eliot’s hands. “However, I honor all my deals. Our exchange ends once I return that to you and send you home.”

Looking down at the book, Eliot can’t help but notice the binding does fit a little loser, more of the pages paid off and withered away. How many decades worth of credits did they use up just to get him back? He wants to get back to them just to tell them off, he thinks, but it’s not true at all. His chest hurts with the thought of them aching for him, he’ll kill the curator his own damn self if they’re hurt too much from trying to take back what she stole.

Speaking of which, though… Eliot thinks about the faint smell of food, the footsteps he sometimes hears in the ceiling.

“The others…?” Eliot asks, nodding at the ceiling and they smile at him, shaking their head with amusement. With a flick of their wrists, Eliot hears doors slamming open all around them, the muffled sound of a plate shattering when it’s startled out of someone’s hand, heavy footfalls not second guessing an opened door.

“Free to leave as they please. Honestly, such petty favors compared to being granted my own freedom,” they answer, “Are we even, witch?”

“Are you square with my team?” Eliot asks.

They nod. “They owe me nothing and still have my good will.”

Then Eliot has no intention of pressing his luck. “Then we’re even.”

“Wonderful,” they respond, “We will not meet again, Eliot Spencer, get your last look and shut your eyes.”

Eliot does and it’s for the best, really. Had his eyes been open, the vertigo would’ve likely made him vomit as the fabric of reality sudden warps, bending him with it. However, the worst of it is landing half on a high table and crashing to the ground in the middle of the main room. The book lands undamaged beside him, Eliot lands annoyed and anxious with a bruised tailbone, but otherwise unharmed.

Taking stock of the room, he decides he’s definitely not the worst off for the wear. “Jesus Christ.”

Hardison’s arms have completely disappeared half-past his elbows, the rest of him looking faint and ghostly as he looks blankly over at Eliot. Whatever Parker shouts before she crashes into Eliot’s arms isn’t English, makes his ears ring more than her arms closing around his neck.

“Oh, if only we could’ve asked him,” Sophie sighs, relief bringing her shoulders down. She looks tired, ruffled in a way Eliot has never been allowed to see and it hurts. “But I doubt he’d be in the devil’s black book.”

Eliot doesn’t pry Parker off even as he stands, moving towards Hardison with alarm. “How long?”

“You or him?” Nate slurs from behind his sunglasses. Not like he’s drunk, more like he’s too busy focusing on something else to focus on his words.  Even with the shades, Eliot notices the red on his face, realizes he smells blood. “It’s been a long two weeks, Eliot.”

Two weeks?” Eliot exclaims.

Parker replies sharply, but he can’t understand her, feels something panicky in his chest only barely restrained with years of training. Hardison is staring at him, unblinking.

“A very, very long two weeks,” Sophie replies, she picks up the book off the floor and locks it away. The safe has gotten several new wards since last Eliot saw it. “Productive, though. We got our witch back.”

Eliot feels his heart clench in his chest when she pats his shoulder as she walks over to where Nate is sitting, staring down at nothing. He startles when she takes his hand, turns his face towards her.

“And with that,” Nate says. “We’ll leave them to you.”

The only thing that keeps Eliot from worrying Nate intends to drown himself in a bottle is Sophie linking arms with him once he’s standing. The queasiness in Eliot’s stomach is from realizing she’s leading him like he can’t see.

“Don’t leave,” Eliot says, because goddamn, he’s strung too tight to think about them being someone he couldn’t reach with a brief sprint.

“Wouldn’t dream of it, love,” Sophie says, nodding up the stairs. “Or maybe we will dream of it, but we won’t do it. You’re making breakfast.”

“Around four pm,” Nate clarifies.

When they’re alone, Eliot drops to his knees in front of Hardison. “Hardison?”

Parker shakes her head. Then points at it, jabs her finger against her temple.

Of course, after all of it, they’d have to play charades. “He’s stuck?” he says, then she nods. “Can your Friends…?” She motions at Hardison, all down where his arms should, across everywhere. They’re doing it already, but--Jesus, two weeks.

Eliot gets in Hardison’s face. “Damn it, Hardison, you idiot, this is the one time you need to start babbling. Tell me about Wizards of Warcraft. Do you want orange soda? What?” He asks, which makes Hardison blink, but nothing more. Eliot has to start somewhere deeper than all that, down where Hardison went to find him. “Talk to me about my string,” he tries next. When Hardison just stares at him, sleepily like Eliot isn’t actually talking to him, Eliot puts his hands on his shoulders, slides down until he can feel the impression of his hands. He squeezes so hard Hardison actually groans. “Alec!

“Wh--!” Hardison solidifies a fraction and Parker joins in, then, relieved and squeezing his shoulder. “Ow, ow, I’m here!”

“Focus. Talk to me about my string,” Eliot insists.

And with difficulty, Hardison does. Most of it doesn’t actually make sense to Eliot, but slowly, he starts to feel it. He can feel the way Hardison has little threads to most people, nice and welcome, generally, but still faint and distant. Some days, he explains, Parker and Eliot feel like ropes but not the kind that tie you down to something, the kind you use when you’re jumping off a cliff and you have to trust someone to catch you. And Parker’s sparkles with fairy lights and wind from a fall and Eliot’s looks like the way his cooking tastes and smells like ‘familiar’, they both do, because they’re family, they’re here and Hardison is here and he could find them anywhere, out of any messy tangle, he could find them and won’t sever them ever he feels them and he loves them and—

Hardison’s gaze finally clears when his hands are mostly solid, save for a few spots on his fingers, he thinks. He doesn’t look, would have to pull his hands away from Eliot’s and that’s where he wants them to be. He lets out an unsteady breath, “You’re here.”

Eliot loves them so fucking much it kills him, he doesn’t feel the need to restrain it today, the visceral relief that comes with it; he wants them know exactly how much he’s feeling, lets them see it all over his face.

“Oh, oh, Jesus, Eliot—” How could he ever have kept this much a secret from them? “You’re—I’m back, I hear you, I’m—”

They wind up on the floor because Eliot is nowhere near as tired as them and still, abruptly too exhausted to stay upright. Parker seems to anticipate the motion, falls back with him and something slows Haridson’s decent onto the both of them.

“Oh, ok, we’re dog piling then? That’s cool, I’m down with that,” Hardison says, splayed over Eliot’s chest, talking into Parker’s throat. He closes a hand in Eliot’s shirt and Eliot notices him shaking. “God, I missed you, man, don’t ever do that again. No more cooking jobs, if you so damn rare, because if I have to cut someone, I will, but you know I’m squeamish and--

“Eliot,” is the first thing Parker says that sounds like human language, cutting Hardison off. His arm tightens around her, too.

“Yeah, darlin’,” Eliot says back, kissing the top of her head and then Hardison’s in turn.

It doesn’t feel nearly as out of place as he expected, nor do they react like it did, just holding him tighter.

//

Nate gives Sophie the ring the day they kill the team off (for the first time) and leave the throne to their children.

Putting the ring on her finger is significant, because she knows some version of her is going to give it back to him, right before he spends the rest of his life falling in love with her. But he’s already crossed that bridge and won’t turn back to it now, past him handled it well enough without him worrying about it. They plan to run away together like teenagers—or maybe more like rich retirees—and for the first time in a long time, Nate’s peace comes to him easily even as he’s leaving.

It’s long since passed the timelines in which Nate would pretend this is easy, but he does know it’s right. The end of the Debtor’s Book—in as much as something like that ever has an ending—has changed to read: “Under the current possession and ownership, and therefore responsibility, of: Leverage International and it’s relevant associates.” The spirit of Leverage may be the same, but whatever it was at the start, it’s grown out of the hands of Nathan Ford and he’s got to turn it over to someone who can make sure it grows the right way.

Parker has always been his choice, but with Eliot and Hardison—head over heels—standing at her sides, he can’t imagine there’s much in the world they won’t be able to face. Looking at her now, he sees little flashes of a hard future, but a bright one. He’s learning to trust the things he sees again.

“I think you’ll be fine without a Seer,” Nate says, holding Sophie’s hand and standing beside their bags, “but I’ll keep an eye out for you anything.”

“I can see somethings if I want,” Parker answers. They all stare at her.

“You can?” Eliot asks.

“Yup. Not like Nate, but my Friends can sometimes shape out what will happen to people,” Parker says, “I met this one kid who was a fortune teller, he showed me how to ask them.” She puts her hands up to her face, looking at him through her fingers. She looks intrigued, not worried. She hums and puts her hand down with a shrug.

“What did you see?” Nate asks her.

“You,” she answers. “But also not, I wasn’t really looking for that.”

“You looked dead at him and weren’t looking for him?” Hardison says, “What were you looking for?”

“Light,” Parker answers, “You still have a lot of light ahead of you, you’ll be fine. So will we.” Said so simply, it doesn’t sound like it’s a hope or a fortune telling, just a simple statement of fact.

If Nate’s future is resting on the light between Parker’s fingers—he looks down fondly at where she’s laced them into Eliot’s and Hardison’s—he can’t imagine he has too much to worry about.

The future is in damn good hands.

//

Everyone has their blessings, too.