shinealightonme: (leverage parker/hardison)
[personal profile] shinealightonme

Things didn't change much after their strategy meeting, except that as spring started to think about making an appearance, everyone became more and more restless.

Hardison hardly ever budged from his cave-like laboratory, and he and Parker would talk about nanobots and their programming and how they could have spread until their eyes were glassy and their voices worn hoarse. Eliot didn't spend much time with them; they either enthused to him about some new theory, wanting his input, or else snapped at him if he distracted them in any way. Since he didn't have any input, they spent most of the time snapping at them. Once or twice he found himself deliberately heading to the lab to disturb them, and shook himself off. He didn't think they had any chance of succeeding, anyway, so why was he trying to find ways to slow them down?

Sophie was almost worse for having no real focus for her direction. She found projects – the small community surrounding the firehouse had things they needed rebuilt, torn down, or fixed – but Eliot could tell they didn't keep her happy. He didn't like the thought of Sophie Devereaux trying to find ways to amuse herself.

He spent more time with her, shooting the breeze and playing card games, when she wasn't busy in town. This place was smaller than Cooperstown, but Eliot had a long memory.

Sterling disappeared late in February, claiming he'd be back if he found anything. Eliot doubted he'd find anything, but figured he'd be back at some point. There were too few familiar faces to go throwing some away.

That left Eliot at Nate's disposal for long stretches of time, and he found that Hardison was half-right. It didn't stop being weird that he couldn't see Nate. But he stopped focusing on it so completely.

"Parker says you met some interesting characters in Boston," Nate prompted him one day.

"Don't know about interesting," Eliot said. "One power-hungry man fast talking people into doing whatever he wants. You see that everywhere."

"Tell me about him anyway," Nate said. "I always like to know what my fellow con men are up to."

Eliot told him the story. In a way, it was easier than if he'd been able to see Nate's face, and his individual reactions to each detail. It was easier than telling Sophie or Hardison, too, because Eliot knew Nate wouldn't think the telling absolved him for his absence. Nate never absolved himself from anything.

After asking several questions about Lindsey's ability to find people like Parker, Nate sighed. From the sound of it, he was leaning back and resting his feet on the table in front of him. "I don't suppose the bar is still in good shape," he said thoughtfully.

"Could be worse," Eliot said. "Your place was trashed, though."

Nate laughed.

Sometimes Eliot could almost forget that anything had changed. Sometimes he could almost think they really were just out of town on a job, and there'd be a radio in his ear so he could hear Hardison complaining, and a harness for Parker, and some outlandish new accent for Sophie.

And then Nate would say something like:

"We could use a skill like that."

And Eliot would wake up again.

"I'm happy leaving people to their own business," Eliot said. "They've got enough to deal with, especially the ones that've changed."

He couldn't say how, but he knew that Nate was looking right at him. "Do you pity us that much?"

"All I know is, a lot of people I've seen haven't turned out so well in the head."

"Parker's changed."

"Parker is her own case," he said, which seemed both more and less cruel than saying she'd always had a screw loose.

"And Sophie?" Nate prodded. "And me?"

"It hasn't helped your social skills much," Eliot said. "But you only use those when you need something, anyway, so who cares?"

Nate hmmmed. "I'm almost positive you used to respect me."

Eliot stood up. "Then maybe you're not so well in the head after all."

Nate laughed again, and Eliot smiled a bit, and then he went off to find Sophie, because if anyone could ever tell what was going on with Nate, it was her.

She was alone in her bedroom, changing back from the old woman whose name, apparently, was Denise. Which just made Eliot wonder if there was a real Denise, which made him shudder. Still, he stepped inside the room and shut the door behind him too quickly for someone else to follow, just in case.

Sophie turned to him, eyebrows raised. "Can I help you?"

"Maybe," he said. "What's Nate really playing at here?"

"My, my, you don't beat around the bush," Sophie said.

"I never did," Eliot reminded her, "and you asked."

"No, you have always been painfully direct. And I suppose our long separation hasn't helped either my memory or your mood." She sat on her bed and motioned for him to join her. "Although I do wish you would stop blaming us all for that. There were some rather difficult circumstances."

Eliot scowled. "I'm not here to talk about that."

"No, but I am," Sophie said. "You have got to stop holding a grudge. I am sorry we weren't there, mostly for Parker's sake, though who knows if having more people around would actually have done her any good. And I wish we could have made it to Boston. Though you could have stayed and looked for us. I do wonder why that didn't occur to you first. Why you thought running away to a different city and leaving no trace was the simplest solution."

Eliot looked away. "Return to base. It's standard protocol."

"Or is it just that you were already out of town before the adrenaline died down and you even thought of us?" Sophie asked. "Maybe the only surprising thing is that you took Parker with you at all."

"I wouldn't leave her behind," Eliot snapped.

"You didn't seem to have any trouble leaving us behind," Sophie said.

He turned back to argue with her, but the look on her face stopped him. "That's no fair you turning my words against me," he said.

"Someone had to let you know how tiresome you've become." There was no shame or apology in her voice. She sounded rather pleased with herself. Not that there was any other way for her to be and still be Sophie Devereaux. Maybe it was a good thing. She, at least, had shown no sign of losing herself. "And maybe now you'll stop growling at Hardison and worrying about Nate. I don't want you to turn out a paranoid old man like Emmerich."

"Emmerich was right. He thought someone was after him, and someone bashed in his skull," Eliot said. It still irritated him that they couldn't find out who – with Lindsey fresh on his mind, it occurred to him that many people might have had new tricks for finding someone who'd wronged them, but he turned down that line of thought. "And Nate hasn't exactly been himself."

"Perhaps not," Sophie said slowly. "But who has?"

"You just told me that I'm the same as always," Eliot said. "Sterling's still an annoying bastard. Hardison's going to rebuild the Internet if it kills him. Not to mention the way you just played me like a mark."

She had a thoughtful expression on her face.

"So what is Nate up to, really?"

"What do you want me to say, Eliot?" she asked. "I don't know what he's planning. I'm not sure he has a definite plan yet or just an idea. If he doesn't even know his long game, how am I supposed to?"

"You know him better than anyone," Eliot said. "Guess."

She laughed, a little sadly. "I guess that he's going to do what he always does. Manipulate everyone, annoy you, infuriate me, lord about like he's the savior of the world, and somehow fix whatever it is he set out to fix against all odds. Call it business as usual."

"Man's been invisible for a year, how is that business as usual?"

"Oh, Eliot," she sighed. "Nate's always been able to turn himself invisible. Didn't you ever pay attention on any of those cons we pulled?"

"Don't give me metaphors," he warned her.

She patted him on the shoulder. "I promise to keep an eye on him for you – metaphorically," she teased. "If you shall promise to lighten up."

"I'm not sure that's something I can promise."

"I'll promise it for you, then," Sophie said. "And I always collect on debts."


Eliot went to poke his head in on Hardison and Parker. In the spirit of the promise he hadn't made to Sophie, he was planning on being polite, even if it meant listening to useless babble about nanobots.

It didn't go according to plan. Parker took one look at him and said, "Oh, that again."

"What again?" Hardison asked, because he was incapable of ignoring something that wasn't his business.

"Yes, that, again," Eliot said. "Which isn't why I came to talk to you."

"Yes, because you wanted to hear all about Hardison's progress with re-starting the bots," Parker rolled her eyes. "He's brooding about Nate again."

"Why are you brooding about Nate?" Hardison asked. "He's here, he's fine, we're all together. What is there to brood about?"

Parker rested her chin on her hands. "Eliot always finds something to brood about. He thinks Nate's up to something."

"Of course Nate's up to something," Hardison told Eliot. "Something called saving the world, and if you haven't noticed, some of us are trying to help."

"I didn't come here to save the world," Eliot said. "Or to talk to people who act like they're in the interview segment of a beauty pageant."

"What'd Nate do to spook you this time?" Parker asked.

"Nothing," Eliot said. "I don't like the way he talks about powers, that's all."

"How so?" Hardison asked, sounding interested. He actually looked away from the computer screen, for one thing.

"He doesn't sound like a man who's trying to figure out how to turn them off."

"Then why else would he be having me bust my ass getting these nanobots running again?" Hardison asked.

"Guess we'll find out soon," Parker said.

Eliot turned to her. "What do you mean?"

"Hello? I told you when you came in, Hardison's almost got the re-start problem figured out," Parker said. It was the same tone of voice she used when Sophie talked about going to museums to look at the artwork.

Eliot had lived through enough of Nate's crazy plans to know that they generally worked. Knowing that this plan was that much closer to being done should have made him feel better.

It didn't.

"So what now?" Parker asked.

"Nothing," he said. "Tell me more about nanobots."

Parker didn't buy it for a second. But it distracted Hardison and gave Eliot a chance to play nice for as long as he could manage. Then he escaped back up to his room to think.

Before he left, Hardison stepped out from behind his control center and gripped his shoulder. "Hey, man, it's okay," he said. "Nate's a bit freaky right about now, but it's going to be better once give those 'bots some termination-with-extreme-prejudice."

Eliot stared at Hardison. "You do terrible impressions. Have you ever even seen Apocalypse Now?"

"Hey you know what? End of the world, no Netflix, no Red Box, nobody to prove that that isn't what Apocalypse Now sounds like."


As Hardison took no end of delight in reminding him, Eliot wasn't a tech expert. He couldn't write new code or hack the Pentagon or untag those photos of him that Hardison had put on Facebook. But he wasn't completely clueless. It's just that his line of work didn't often call for creating things with technology.

He knew all about how to wipe things out.

Probably destroying Hardison's work once the geek had fallen asleep at his keyboard was a violation of Sophie's command to play nice, but he could make it up to them later.


He was sitting down to breakfast with Sophie and Nate, carefully not looking at the piece of toast that vanished bite by bite in mid-air, when they heard Hardison yelling from upstairs.

Eliot sprang up, running to the rescue, with Sophie close behind. A look behind showed him that she'd turned herself into a tall, muscled linebacker of a man, however much good that might do in case of trouble. As far as he could tell, Nate wasn't following, or at least not very closely.

Closer to the scene, there wasn't any sign of danger, just Hardison yelling. They arrived at Hardison's lab just after Parker, who marched straight in and grabbed Hardison's arm before he could throw one of Emmerich's notebooks at his computer screens. Since she wasn't wearing gloves, she must have known instantly what the fuss was about.

"The data's gone," she told Eliot and Sophie before they could ask. "Everything we'd been working out for the nanobots."

"How?" Sophie asked.

Parker shrugged. "It's possible there was a glitch in the system."

"A glitch? In my system?" Hardison asked.

"It is kind of thrown together," Parker said. "It's the nicest scavenged thrown-together end of the world computer system I've ever seen, but it's still – you know. Not perfect."

"Not perfect means it doesn't have an 80 inch screen and an interactive voice system that sounds like Majel Barrett," Hardison insisted. "It doesn't mean information could get wiped in the middle of the night."

"Apparently it does mean that," Nate said. At some point he had joined up with the rest of them. "Can you salvage it?"

Hardison's shoulders slumped. "I'll get to work on it, man, but this is a step back. And I'm going to have to check the whole damn system, too, so this doesn't happen again – " he kept muttering, more and more quietly, about all the things he had to do. The rest of them drew back to leave him to his work and his lamenting.

"Well, shit," Eliot said. "Not the best news to wake up to."

"Why Eliot," Nate responded drily. "I didn't know you cared. I thought you were indifferent about this project."

"I'm going to have to put up with him moping for days," Eliot said.

He knew he could keep guilt off his face. But however else Nate may have changed, he was still as sharp as ever, which meant he didn't need to see it to know it was there.

Whether he saw it or not, he didn't mention. "I don't think there's much I can do to help, so I'm going to finish my breakfast."

Sophie slipped back into her usual form. "Practical and selfish, I love it. I'll join you."

"Hardison could probably use another pair of hands," Parker said. "Maybe two. Eliot?"

"Sure, why not," Eliot said. "My morning's shot anyway."

They didn't re-enter the lab until after Sophie and Nate had gone, which gave Parker plenty of time to eye Eliot.

"Turn me in or don't," he said. "But don't glare me to death."

"You know he's going to be impossible to live with now," she said.

Eliot winced. He did know.

"I just hope it was worth it," she said.

"Yeah, me too."


The next three days were a blur of computer screens, Hardison's grumbling, and the distant view of the outdoors as Eliot passed the windows in the hallway. Spring was arriving, but the three of them were locked inside by obsession and single-mindedness. Hardison had finally given in and accepted that there was no recovering the lost data. That meant, after three supremely thorough checks on the system, having to reconstruct the work of two months as quickly as possible.

It got so tiresome that Eliot thought once or twice about just throwing his hands up and admitting that he'd deleted the data. What stopped him was the thought of Hardison's response. He wasn't normally intimidated by the geek, but this time he made an exception.

There was also the thought of what Nate would have to say about anything, though Eliot was pretty sure Nate knew he's thrown the monkey wrench into the gears. Nate didn't say anything, but he didn't need to. It's what Eliot would have suspected, if he'd been in Nate's shoes.

So he, Parker, and Nate all knew that Eliot had sabotaged their own goal, but they all got together to eat and get status updates from Hardison and pretended like nothing had happened. It was enough to drive a man mad, and it might have continued indefinitely if Sterling had come back.

Eliot figured that Sophie's promise for him to lighten up did not extend to Sterling. "Give up already?" he asked.

"Actually," Sterling said as he sauntered in. "I've met a rather interesting person."

"Don't keep us waiting," Sophie said. "God knows we could use some new faces."

"Not here," Sterling said. "She wouldn't come with me."

"I like her already," Parker grinned.

Sterling scowled. "But she's interested in meeting you all, for whatever reason."

"And why would we want to do that?" Nate asked.

"Good of you to ask. She makes things work."

There was a brief pause. Eliot ground his teeth. He was going to have to say something, wasn't he.

"I'm guessing you don't just mean she's a mechanic."

"Of course not," Sterling said, like Eliot was the one talking stupid. "She fixes things that have no reason to work, just by touching them. Her lights turn on and off despite her house not having any power."

"She could fix Hardison's system," Parker said to Sophie.

Sterling frowned. He'd missed that drama. "Or more to the point, she could fix these nanobots you're all so excited about."

"She could fix the nanobots we're all so excited about," Parker said to Sophie.

"What an idea, Parker, how fascinating," Sophie replied.

"You think it's a good idea to get some strange woman mixed up in this?" Eliot asked. "We don't know anything about her."

"No," Nate said, "But that's an inconvenience, not an obstacle. We can learn about her. And the payoff here would be immense."

That was what Eliot was afraid of.


They'd talked endlessly about Sterling's find, once they could drag Hardison away from his screens to come chime in, first in disbelief and then giddy fascination.

"But how does it work," he kept asked.

"Does it matter, as long as it does?" Sophie wondered.

"If you can't see how it works, there's no guarantee it is working," Nate mused.

That was one of Nate's few contributions to the conversation. If they'd suddenly found a new angle on a con, one that could speed their timetable up and give them a new way in, Nate would have laid out the new plan for them. Now he just listened, his own thoughts indecipherable.

Eliot kept quiet. He already knew what he needed to know.

It still got dark pretty early, so by the time they wrapped up their discussion they decided it was too late to do anything about the woman that night.

What they were planning on doing about her tomorrow was beyond Eliot. Was Nate going to come visit her and talk her into helping them? Because she was sure to be in a rush to trust a man who wouldn't let her see him.

It didn't matter what they were planning. Eliot wasn't going to let it come to that. He waited until everyone had settled down for the night and snuck outside. He could make his way along just fine. Sterling, usually suspicious, told them all how he'd found this woman in the first place. He clearly hadn't thought any of them would go looking for her in the middle of the night.

Eliot stopped to wonder for a second why he was doing this.

But if he'd had any doubts, they vanished when he heard someone behind him.

An honest man didn't worry that people were lying to him.

"You following me, Nate?" He didn't bother turning around.

"You going somewhere, Eliot?"

"Maybe I need some fresh air."

"Fair enough, you have had a stressful few days. Helping Hardison and Parker salvage data. Having to put up with Sterling again, I know you two don't get along so well. And of course destroying Hardison's work."

"You already know that," Eliot said. "You're just wasting time now."

"I am wasting time because I am trying to think why you would do something like that," Nate said. "I never thought you were so petty."

"I'm being petty?" Eliot asked. "Who's been sneaking around for months because it makes him feel important?"

Nate ignored that. "We should have come found you in Boston," he said. "And maybe things would have been better. Maybe. Or maybe Emmerich would have died before we could get any of his research, and there'd be no hope of fixing anything. Is that the idea?"

"I don't have any objections to fixing things," Eliot said. "Except I don't think that's what you're really trying to do. Sophie and Hardison are so convinced this is another stealing-back-from-the-big-bad-guys kind of plan, but I don't buy that. Maybe it's because they never stopped seeing you for who you were before April, and I had to meet you all over again. Maybe it just made me think differently about who you were before April anyway."

"I haven't changed, Eliot." Nate's voice was starting to sound tired. "I have not changed except that all my resources have been taken away, except for me and this team. The odds are worse than ever. This isn't some safe we have to crack. This is the future, Eliot."

"What business have we got breaking into the future?" Eliot said. "That's crazy talk, and I think you know it is, too, or you wouldn't be dancing around what you're saying. You'd come right out and say it."

Nate didn't take the bait.

"What do you really want to do with Emmerich's nanobots, Nate?"

"Now you're wasting time," Nate snapped. "You've figured it out already."

"I was hoping I was wrong," Eliot said. The cold night air was starting to seep into his bones, but the most he could do to warm himself just now was stomp his feet. "Emmerich was mad to turn half the world into freaks. Now you want to finish the job for him?"

"Better all the world than half the world," Nate said. "There's no undoing what Emmerich did, what all the people affected by him did. And leaving things like this is unsustainable. The only solution is to extend the same chances to everyone."

"You'd really wish that on everyone?" Eliot demanded. "On me, on Hardison, on Maggie? These powers, Nate, they kill people. They drive people crazy. They turn regular people into monsters. And you want to do that to more people? You don't get to make that decision for them."

"Someone has to make a decision!" Nate shouted. Eliot could picture him, ranting and waving his arms like one of the crazier prophets. "Someone has to save these people!"

"And you always know best for everyone else, is that it?"

Suddenly Nate was up in his face, all sound and fury and hot breath. "I know enough not to tear myself apart, which is more than can be said for the rest of the world."

Eliot stood his ground. "And you're going to give them more weapons to tear each other apart, is that it?"

"I'm going," Nate said very deliberately, "to level the playing field."

"This isn't like stopping some corrupt judge or businessman," Eliot started.

"This is exactly like that," Nate said. "This is about everyone getting an equal chance. Who would say no to that?"

"I would. You wouldn't be doing me any favors putting that kind of power on me, with all those delusions and fears. You'd just be making a choice for me. That's not equality and you know it."

"I really did hope that you would agree with me," Nate said. "I can see I was wrong."

Eliot took half a step back, standing more securely. "Are we really going to do this?"

"I can't let you sabotage my plans anymore," Nate said simply.

"And I can't let your plans go forward," Eliot responded in kind. "So it goes."

Nate took a swing at his head, which Eliot easily blocked. If Nate was counting on Eliot's inability to see him, he was mistaken. He didn't need his sight. The real problem would be if Nate had a weapon that Eliot didn't know about. He wouldn't hear that coming the same way he could hear Nate's trying to get around behind him.

At what point had this become about weapons?

Nate scored a solid shot to Eliot's right knee, which is what Eliot got for lapsing into nostalgia now, in the middle of a fight.

He'd had a hell of a lot of practice, the last year, at clearing his mind. He did that now, didn't think about Boston or con men or nanobots. Didn't think about anything except the sound of air moving around another body, the sight of grass bending under feet –

Tunnel vision was the only excuse for missing what happened next.

"What are you doing?" someone called out, and a hand descended on Eliot's shoulder.

Eliot struck back, instinctively, and hit Hardison in the face for a second time.

To his credit, Hardison didn't let go of Eliot, but he also got sidetracked from whatever he'd been about to say.

"Nate," Eliot said simply.

"Think he's gone, man," Hardison said. "What got into you? Why're you and Nate fighting?"

"Not now," Eliot said tightly. He could tell Hardison about Nate's real plan after Nate had no chance to put it into action. When it wouldn't matter whose side Hardison was on.

"No, now," Hardison said. "I'm sick of you not trusting me with stuff. Why can't you just tell me what's actually going on?"

"Maybe you're the one who shouldn't trust me," Eliot said. "Maybe there's too much trust here. You want to know? Nate's gone bad and I deleted your stupid data."

Hardison's hand dropped from Eliot's shoulder. "You and I are going to have a very serious talk later," he said. "I thought I just owed you for the two times you've punched me in the face, but this is – this is big league stuff, now. You're going to be paying me back forever."

"Not if we don't catch up with Nate," Eliot said.

This time, he did sense the person sneaking up on him, but thanks to Hardison's expressive face, he knew better than to attack.

Even if it meant he had Parker's whole weight thrown on his back.

"Why?" he asked dully.

"Remember Richmond?" she said. "Invisible woman?"

Her hands dropped over his eyes.

"That wasn't necessary then and it really isn't necessary now," he said.

"Giddy up, pony," she said. "Forward and to the right."

"I can hear you laughing, Hardison," Eliot said. "Keep it up and I'm not going to owe you anything, at least not anything you'll actually want."

"My kingdom for a camera," Hardison said.

"He's getting away," Parker whispered fiercely.

After all that, it didn't take long for them to catch up with Nate. He hadn't had much of a head start, and Parker was even less dependent on sight now than Eliot.

"Nate," Eliot said. "Come on. Give it a rest already."

"Yeah, Nate," Parker called. "Usually you have good plans but this one kind of sucks."

"No one bats a thousand," Hardison added, despite not knowing what they were talking about. "Maybe we can all get together and workshop this."

"Are you ganging up on me?" Nate's voice responded.

"We're trying to help you," Eliot said.

"You're kind of help is an awful lot like betrayal, Eliot."

"I'm not having this discussion with you while you're invisible," he finally snapped. "Come on out right now or I'm dragging you back."

There was no verbal response. Nate was trying to sneak off, quietly as he could, but between his own hearing and Parker's silent direction – maybe she was helpful, not that he'd tell her, except that she was sure to have heard – there was no way he could be quiet enough.

Eliot thought a quick apology to Nate, but that didn't stop him from lashing out and striking the man down.

As Nate fell to the ground – visible to Eliot's eyes for the first time in a year – Hardison whistled.

"Guess you were holding back when you punched me those times," he said. "Which doesn't mean you don't owe me. And right now you can pay up by explaining why I just helped you KO Nate."


Explaining to Hardison was bad enough. The geek had gone quiet and didn't say another word as Eliot carried Nate back to their headquarters.

Explaining to Sterling and Sophie, after Parker raced to fetch them, was even worse. Eliot couldn't make heads or tails of what their expressions meant.

"Do you realize how much some people would pay, to get the same sort of powers Nate or Parker have?" Sterling said finally.

"I bet more of them would rather not have their lives uprooted, again," Eliot growled. "Not to mention the little trend I keep noticing of powers making people go crazy."

"You can't mean Nate," Sophie said. "He's not – he didn't mean anything bad by any of it, I'm sure."

"That's what he said." Eliot shrugged. "It doesn't mean it wouldn't have been a bad thing."

"Of course," Sophie said. "But doing nothing..."

"Doing nothing might be the best bet for Nate, for now," Eliot said. "Don't let him spend so much time invisible. And stop him getting so aloof. We could really use him back as his real self again."

Sterling narrowed his eyes. "Why does it sound like you're planning on leaving?"

"Because I am," Eliot said. "Nate shouldn't be doing anything for now. Figured I might as well pick up the slack." He headed for the door, but stopped.

"Sterling – don't bother looking for that woman, the fixing one. I'm going to pay her a little visit, just in case you get tempted into following through with Nate's plan."

"I'd tell you that's unnecessary, but you wouldn't believe me."

"No, I wouldn't," Eliot said shortly. He looked over at Sophie, who looked graver and older than ever, for all that the face she was wearing was her own. "Sophie?"

She nodded at him.

"I'm going to try to lighten up."

She smiled crookedly at him.

"And I'm going to keep my eye on Nate."

He nodded at her in return and left.


He was a half-mile down the road before his shadows caught up with him again.

"How do you move so fast?" Hardison panted. "You got stumpy little short man legs. Shouldn't your steps be, like, three inches big?"

Eliot growled at him.

Parker danced up on the other side, walking backwards so she could look Eliot in the eye. "Now who's sneaking," she asked him.

"I could use some space, after that bad bit of business," he said. "And I'm sure you could use some space from me."

"Please," Parker said. "Your brain is like my home away from home by now."

Eliot couldn't even bother with being creeped out by that. He must be more tired than he thought.

"I need you to stay with Nate," he said. "Sophie's looking out for him, but there's no telling if he'll get it into his head to play with Emmerich's toys again, and I don't trust Sterling to stop him."

Parker rolled her eyes. "What do you think I was doing while you were whining at Sophie?" she asked, pulling one of Emmerich's notebooks out of her pack. "Nate might be the invisible one, but I'm still the best thief around here."

"Thief nothing, I handed that to you," Hardison pointed out.

"I took Nate's copies!"

"The man was unconscious, that's not exactly hard to steal from an unconscious man."

Eliot shook his head at them and waited for them to stop chattering at each other.

Unfortunately when they did, it was just for Parker to open her eyes wide and ask, "What happens now?"

"How the hell do I know?"

"You beat Nate," she said. "That makes you the new Nate."

Eliot wasn't sure which was worse. "I didn't beat Nate. And I sure as hell don't want to be Nate."

"You knocked him out cold," Hardison said.

Eliot glared at him. "Do you think he was right?" He was pretty sure where Parker fell in all this, but he had to know about Hardison. "Would you have helped if you'd known what he was trying to do?"

Hardison sighed. "I wouldn't have minded getting my own Spidey-sense," he said. "And – he's still Nate, you know. I think he meant right. And I think he was right that somebody's got to do something."

Eliot shook his head. "People take care of themselves. Every big disaster comes along, they bounce back sooner or later. This one might just take a little longer."

"What about people like Court?" Parker demanded. "What about Cooperstown?"

"What, they're all supposed to be my problem now?" Eliot asked.

"No, silly. Our problem."

Eliot thought about that for the next stretch of road. "I guess some people might need a little extra help taking care of themselves," he said.

"And that's what we do," Hardison said, laying a hand over Eliot's shoulders.

Parker swooped around to Eliot's other side and grabbed his arm. "That's what we do."

"I'm going to regret this," Eliot said.

Parker laughed. She knew as clear as he did – as Hardison must have, too – that what he really meant was, Yeah, that's what we do.

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