Nate walked into the brew pub at seven-thirty in the morning with one of the biggest shame hangovers of his life.
He'd always been an early riser, and most of the time the rest of the team wasn't. Still, when he opened the door, relief coursed through him when he found the lights off.
He flicked them on and walked through the kitchen. Though Nate knew that Eliot's claim to sleeping only ninety minutes a day was a joke, he'd never figured out just how much of a joke it was. The hitter was often to be found in the wee hours doing something in the kitchen, whether making a meal or cleaning one up or preparing the next day's menu. Thankfully, he was nowhere to be seen now.
Nate grabbed a bottle of Jameson as he passed the bar, decided to save some electricity by not turning on the lights in the main dining area, and headed into the brew pub's back room. Except for the eerie glow of Hardison's constantly running electronics, the lights were off here, too.
Another wave of relief. Parker kept the oddest hours of anyone on the team; Nate had seen her stay up all night for heists, sleep for days, and take nothing but cat naps for weeks on end. After five years of working with her, he'd probably found her up and about at every possible hour. He wasn't sure if that said more about him or her.
Hardison, even though — or perhaps because — he lived in the building, considered noon early.
And Nate had left Sophie in bed less than an hour previously, so unless she'd woken up after he left and decided to try to beat him here, he wouldn't be seeing her, either. Her sleep habits were almost as bad as Hardison's sometimes.
He walked in the pseudo-darkness to his desk and switched on the lamp. He brewed some coffee using the small pot he kept there for that purpose, and topped it off with a couple shots of the Jameson.
He needed it, this morning.
Yesterday they'd celebrated the holiday season by taking down a bastard who was trying to sell defective toys to kids. That night, Sophie had proposed a solution to their gift dilemma — exchanging "trust" for Christmas.
The others had balked at her suggestion, cracking jokes and avoiding eye contact like a group of teenagers getting the sex talk, clearly hoping that if they delayed enough, Sophie would give up the idea.
But Nate had known her long enough to know when she would not be deterred. He also knew that the longer everyone delayed, the more hurt she would be, although she would never show it.
And despite what everyone seemed to think about him, he hated seeing any of them in pain, Sophie most of all.
Maybe it was because of the standard rush of finishing a job and helping a client, or perhaps it was due to the fact that the holidays always made him think of Sam, but he'd volunteered his story about the trumpet his father had given him as a kid.
He took a swig of whiskey directly from the bottle and washed it down with some spiked coffee. Just thinking about it made his face heat. Until the previous night, no one but Maggie knew the whole story. He'd never, not even after the death of his father, been so brutally honest and vulnerable with the team. Halfway through, when he got to the part about Sam, he realized what he was telling them and almost couldn't finish. But mastermind, grifter, and stubborn bastard that he was, he'd refused to show them his embarrassment. He'd thought of Sophie — he was doing this for her, to help her save face — and he'd thought of the reason she'd suggested it — trust was a truly precious gift — and clumsily finished the damned story before foisting the spotlight onto someone else.
All four, Sophie included, sat stunned for several moments after. They knew how significant something like that was, and no one had an excuse to hold back after that.
Parker, surprisingly, went next, telling a touching story about the first happy Christmas she'd spent in foster care, which explained both where she'd gotten her well-worn bunny and why she loved the holiday so much.
Hardison went after Parker. He told them how difficult it had been for him to stay in Lucille after the job when he'd been buried in a coffin. They — or at least Nate — had noticed he'd been even more nervous around small spaces than before, but Hardison revealed that for the first six months after that job, he often went home to throw up after a full day of sitting in his beloved van. He assured them things were much better now, but he still got antsy if he had to spend too much time in Lucille.
Sophie regaled them with the thrilling tale of the birth of Sophie Devereaux — why she'd chosen that name in particular, how she'd developed the persona, and why Sophie was her favorite of all her aliases. As befit the legendary grifter, the story was full of intrigue, romance, tragedy, and drama, and she swore every part of it was absolutely true. Nate had his doubts about the climactic chase through the catacombs under the streets of Paris, but in the spirit of Christmas and his own emotional well-being, he kept his mouth shut.
Eliot needed a double-shot of bourbon before starting, but he eventually confessed that he'd not been entirely honest with them about why returning to San Lorenzo two years earlier had been so difficult for him. Nate had pieced together most of the story from conversations with General Flores and Eliot in the time since, but Eliot told them in detail about the death of a friend he'd made while fighting under Flores. The two had apparently been quite close — to the obvious surprise of everyone, Eliot used the phrase "best friend" several times to describe the man, who had been killed saving Eliot's life. He finished by explaining that he visited his friend's grave whenever he was in San Lorenzo, which was often now that Moreau was gone.
They all sat in silence for a long time after that. Nate wasn't sure what the others had been thinking, but he had gone through each story again and made note of several things: his theory on why each person had chosen their particular story, what that story told him about the essence of each member of his family, how far they'd all come since that first job with Dubenich, and how much courage it had taken each of them to give trust as a gift that year.
He'd been so proud of them all. The job had been a difficult one for them, and they'd risked it all again by being so honest with each other.
They were ready.
And this morning, he'd woken up regretting his own part in it. He wondered if they each felt the same — or would, once they'd dragged themselves out of bed.
He shook the reverie away and turned to the papers on his desk. In a few days, he'd call a meeting to discuss their next job — a job he'd been working toward for years, and one he was planning to be his final job with the team.
The black book.
He took another swig of Jameson and went to work.
Parker came downstairs from Hardison's apartment around nine. Nate had noticed that she'd been staying over more and more frequently. He might have felt guilty about that invasion of privacy, if the team hadn't made it their mission to invade his the whole time they were based in Boston.
"Morning, Nate!" she chirped, skipping to the chair she'd declared hers since her injury, munching from a box of cereal. She made herself comfortable and turned on A Charlie Brown Christmas.
If she was feeling a shame hangover, she was becoming a better grifter than Sophie.
Around ten, a delicious smell began to emanate from the kitchen.
Parker inhaled slowly. "Mmm. Eliot's here!"
Her statement was confirmed not ten minutes later when Eliot brought in a few plates laden with eggs, bacon, pancakes, and toast.
He handed Parker a plate, but sighed at the sight of the cereal box. "Parker, I told you I'd make you chocolate chip pancakes this morning!"
"But you didn't say when," Parker said, mouth full of said pancake. "I was hungry!"
Eliot grumbled his way across the room and set another plate on Nate's desk.
"Thanks. Smells great," Nate said, without looking up from his papers.
Or at least, without seeming to. He watched Eliot out of the corner of his eye.
Of all of them, he'd expected Eliot to be nearly as ashamed of last night as he was. The story about his friend had clearly been an emotional one for Eliot.
To Nate's immense surprise, the hitter set a third plate on the desk, pulled up a chair, and started eating.
"You sleep at all last night?" Eliot asked. His gaze flicked meaningfully to the bottle of Jameson.
Nate pushed aside the list of all Interpol employees currently working in Highpoint Tower and took a large, equally meaningful swig of his spiked coffee.
"Like a baby," he lied. In reality, he'd tossed and turned, dozing on and off until he'd decided to come into the office.
"Right." Eliot munched on some toast, watching Nate with those piercing blue eyes.
Nate knew that Eliot knew he was lying. And that Nate knew that he knew. They knew each other well enough by now.
Nate cleared his throat and picked up a fork. The scrambled eggs were fantastic. "What about you?"
Eliot smiled. "Honestly? Better than I have in a long time. I called the General and wished him and his family a Merry Christmas, and then I slept for eight full hours. Completely dreamless."
Translation: Completely nightmareless.
Nate grunted and stuffed his mouth with food because he didn't have any other response. Eliot didn't have a shame hangover — he had the opposite. Nate felt like the characters at the end of A Christmas Carol watching the previously stingy, "Bah humbug"ing Ebenezar Scrooge generously donate money and wish everyone a "Merry Christmas."
He wondered if he actually had fallen asleep, and this was all a crazy dream.
"What's so funny?" said Nate.
"You," Eliot said. "I know what you're thinking. Who am I and what did I do to Eliot Spencer?"
Those who assumed Eliot Spencer was just a hired thug eventually paid for underestimating him.
And, in spite of working with the man for five years, Nate occasionally found himself in the company of those fools.
"Don't worry," Eliot said. "It won't last. I'm sure I'll be back to normal once Hardison wakes up."
"But to answer your question" — the question he hadn't actually asked, Nate reminded himself — "I got a pretty amazing gift for Christmas yesterday."
"Trust?" Nate asked, making sure to infuse the word with as much cynicism as possible.
Eliot smiled with a very un-Eliot-like patience. "Vulnerability." He pushed out his chair and stood. "It's always nice to be reminded that it's a strength." He picked up his empty plate and reached over to gather Nate's, too. "Not a weakness."
He winked, leaving Nate alone.
It was twelve-thirty when Nate received a text from Sophie.
Taking advantage of after Xmas sales. You want anything?
Nate rolled his eyes. As if she were going to the grocery store and not high-end designer outlets.
He responded in the negative, even though he knew the question was a formality and that she'd get him something whether he wanted it or not.
Hardison finally trudged downstairs at two. He yawned, poured himself some orange soda, brought his laptop to the couch, and started typing.
Without pausing or otherwise drawing her attention away from what must have been the twentieth Christmas special Nate had heard that day — this one was actually a movie, A Muppet Christmas Carol, which Nate didn't actually mind — Parker moved from her chair to sit next to Hardison, wrapping herself in a blanket and snuggling into his side. He put his arm around her, kissed her temple without taking his eyes from his screen, and continued to type with only one hand.
Nate allowed himself a small smile at that. Both of them had come so far since that first job, when Hardison awkwardly flirted and Parker had been afraid of people touching her. He'd never say it aloud, but he privately agreed with Sophie that they made one of cutest couples he'd ever seen.
Eliot came in not twenty minutes later with a plate for Hardison, who turned abruptly, causing the plate to clatter to the floor and eggs, pancakes, and bacon to fly all over everyone.
Nate covered his mouth to hide his smirk. Eliot's good mood had, indeed, been spoiled within half an hour of Hardison waking up.
"Dammit, Eliot! You got syrup all over my computer!"
"I made you breakfast! You're welcome!"
"For ruining my keyboard? Yeah, thanks so much for that!"
"Shh!" Parker snapped. "I'm trying to watch the movie!"
"Like you haven't seen it a million times," Hardison grumbled.
"Pause it, Parker, and help us clean up!" Eliot yelled at the same time.
"I'm not cleaning up your mess." And with that quiet declaration, Parker returned to her own chair and passive aggressively turned the volume up to full blast while Eliot and Hardison bickered.
Which was, of course, when Sophie came in with her shopping bags.
"I come bearing gifts!" she sang, though she could barely be heard over the third act of A Muppet Christmas Carol.
She rolled her eyes, though she did it fondly and with a smile, and walked in to plop her bags down on top of the blueprints of the Highpoint Tower.
Nate sighed and pushed away from the desk. There was no way he was getting anything done now.
"These are for you," Sophie said, indicating two large, bulging bags.
"I thought I told you I didn't need anything," he said, looking into one of the bags. It was full of hats.
"Nate," she said, dragging his name out in that way that made him want to shove everything off his desk and ravish her right there, in spite of the chaos around them. "Need and want are two very different things. You said you didn't need anything, but I wanted to get you something."
She pulled out a black, pinstriped trilby and put it on his head. "And when I saw this, I knew you needed it."
That cracked his gruff exterior, and he grinned at her. He hadn't required confirmation that Sophie wasn't suffering from a shame hangover, but there it was, all the same.
"And you, Miss Devereaux? What did you find that you needed?"
"Oh, nothing much," she said, grabbing him by the collar and pulling him close. She whispered in his ear. "Just some little garments I thought you might want to see me in."
He turned to kiss her, but they were interrupted when both Eliot and Hardison yelled, "Parker, turn it off!"
And Parker did.
"It was over anyway," she said, and left the room with a huff.
Eliot stormed out after her, muttering something like, "Last time … good food … dammit, Hardison."
"No respect," Hardison grumbled. "Expensive … not toys …" He tossed the entire laptop aside and went to another one, continuing to mumble to himself.
Sophie tore her gaze from the waning action and cocked an eyebrow. "So, normal day, then?"
"Pretty much," said Nate. He sat down and started to move the bags from his desk to the floor so he could get back to work.
Sophie pulled up a chair and sat, too. Like Eliot, her eyes flicked significantly to the bottle of Jameson. "How are you feeling today?"
"Like I want to kill them all," he said. "You know. Normal day."
"That's not what I meant."
She watched as he tried to find the folder with the details on the Highpoint Tower Steranko system.
"Soph, I'm busy, so —"
"You tossed and turned all night."
He sighed. Of course she hadn't been asleep.
"The gift of trust only works if it goes both ways."
"Yeah, yeah," he said. He finally found the folder he was looking for and opened it. "I heard your stories and you heard mine and we all learned something about each other. Great gifts."
She gave him a steady look, tilting her head about fifteen degrees, and smiled softly. He'd seen that look a million times before. It was the one she flashed right before she set the hook.
"And we're all very proud of you," she gently mocked. "But that's not what makes trust. You have to trust others, yes. And it's obvious that you do. But having trust in yourself — that's the hard part."
She rose, allowing him a long, hard look at her legs, gathered her bags, and turned to leave.
"We trust you, Nate. If you can't trust yourself, let us show you how."
And with that, the greatest grifter in the world left the hook dangling right in front of him.
He just needed to decide whether or not to take it.
With the other three gone and Hardison tapping away at his new laptop, Nate finally started to get a solid plan together.
Around four, Hardison shuffled over to his desk.
"I got the last set," the hacker said, dropping a folder in front of Nate. "Names, birth dates, social security numbers, and mother's maiden names of everyone who works in Highpoint Tower."
"Great," Nate said.
Hardison seemed subdued, but Nate figured that was more because of the earlier syrup incident than any shame hangover. Of the whole team, Hardison was the most shameless when it came to sharing his feelings.
Hardison paused as if he wanted to say something, then seemed to change his mind and turned to leave.
"Hardison," said Nate, without taking his eyes off his papers. "I want you to prepare a briefing. We'll put this in front of the others before New Year's."
In his peripheral vision, Nate saw Hardison's face light up like one of Parker's Christmas hats. "Seriously?"
"How much should I prepare?"
"Everything. I want to be ready to go by February."
Hardison grinned. "Awesome. Great. I'll get on it." He turned to leave, then seemed to change his mind and said, "Thanks. I think this is the for the best."
Nate finally looked up and met Hardison's gaze. "Thank you, Hardison. I know keeping this from them has been tough. I appreciate your …" He nearly rolled his eyes at his own hesitation. "Your trust in me."
Hardison gave one of his silent chuckles — he smiled with a small huff through his nose and looked away. "They trust you, too, Nate. So should you."
Nate sighed and turned back to his work. "You stole that one from Sophie," he muttered.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Hardison said, returning to his computer with a grin.
Nate spent the afternoon in his planning zone. It was coming up on seven-thirty when he finally resurfaced to hear muttering in the main room. He glanced out to see the other four members of the team talking animatedly in hushed tones.
"What's going on?" he asked, making his way toward them.
They all immediately looked guilty, even Sophie, and gave hurried and unconvincing "Nothing"s.
Except for Parker.
She stepped forward, chin jutting out in pride and stubbornness, and said, "Actually, I wanted to talk to you."
"Parker," Sophie chided.
But the blond thief ignored her and, quicker than Nate could register, shoved something into his hands.
It was a trumpet. A sad, dented, tarnished, beat-up old trumpet.
He froze. It wasn't his. He knew that. Not because he kept it under lock and key on his boat — Parker would have laughed out loud at his lack of any real security — but because his was much better cared for than this one.
"Where —?" was all he managed to say.
"A long time ago, before we all started working together, I stole this. It looked silly and kind of shiny — at the time, anyway," she added with a shrug. "I kept it in one of my warehouses, packed away. I spent all afternoon looking for it."
He stared at her. Behind her, the other three held their breaths.
She brought one arm up in front of her to grab her opposite elbow — it was one of her nervous gestures. But she stopped herself halfway there, planted her feet, and stuck her chest out.
Little Parker was all grown up.
Nate's eyes started to sting.
"It's not so shiny anymore, and it doesn't even work," she said. "I tried it for half an hour."
She licked her lips and winced, and Nate noticed they were swollen. He knew that pain all too well.
"But every year around Christmas I see these drives collecting instruments for kids who can't afford them. And you know about trumpets, so I thought that maybe you could fix it so we could donate it."
Her gaze never wavered from his for an instant.
He looked at her, then at the other three members of the team. Then at the beat-up old trumpet in his hands.
He trusted them. They were ready. All of them.
But was he?
He brought the trumpet to his lips and blew a simple, wordless tune.
We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
He slowed down on and a Happy New Year and hit the last note with an impressive vibrato, considering the condition of the mouthpiece. It was only the tiniest bit out of tune.
He grinned, and looked up to meet four pairs of wide eyes smiling back at him.
Hardison and Eliot exchanged look and did one of their little fist bumps, though as far as Nate could tell, neither was at all responsible for what had just happened.
Sophie smiled at him through tears.
Parker's mouth was hanging open.
"It's not broken, Parker," he said. "You just have to know how to play." He turned the trumpet over in his hands. "It needs a bit of spit and a little tuning, but some lucky kid will be able to play it in no time."
"What else can you play?" Parker asked. "My favorite Christmas song is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Can you do that one?"
She might have been all grown up, but her eyes sparkled with an innocence that he hoped she'd never lose.
His heart ached. He'd learned to play a lot of Christmas songs in order to cheer Sam up in the hospital. He wasn't sure he'd be able to make it through them.
But what in the hell was he afraid of? It wasn't as though they'd think any less of him.
He just needed to trust that he could do it.
He smiled. "Yes, I know that one."
And in a few days, he needed to trust that he could lead them on one final job.
He put the trumpet to his lips and started to play.