Welcome to my first (but probably not last) Leverage novel. It is complete, and it will go up one chapter at a time each week from now until the beginning of May – 13 chapters in all.
This takes place early in Season 5, so all appropriate spoilers stand.
Also, as I was writing this particular story, I relied heavily on a soundtrack, with one specific song serving as the main theme for each chapter – but all of them, I think, are very appropriate for Leverage overall. Also, as an added bonus, as far as I can tell, not one of these songs has been turned into any kind of fanvid! So, if there are any people out there skilled with making fanvids (as I am DECIDEDLY NOT), I submit to you these songs as possible inspiration!
Fair warning – plenty of canon-level violence, but nothing worse than that. Eliot's on the job.
The theme song for the first chapter is "I've Seen All Good People" by Yes, the first and only song I've ever known to rely on chess as its central metaphor for life. Figured it was appropriate for our resident chess-master.
Chapter 1: Black Squares
Nate wasn't nervous.
That was the first thing Eliot noticed as he stepped into the office-slash-briefing-room-slash-lair that was the new home of Leverage, Incorporated here in Portland in the back of Hardison's attempt at ruining a brewpub. They'd been based in Portland for no more than three months and already Eliot had utterly banned Hardison from choosing menus or even speaking to the kitchen staff about food. It was either that or risk Hardison's horrifically inedible brain-spasms actually being implemented.
If Hardison were allowed to contaminate the actual chef...Eliot didn't even want to think about it. He didn't lose sleep from bombs and plagues, but Hardison's no-that-isn't-food...that was another matter.
Eliot didn't have to glance around the room to know he and Nate were alone. Parker was out with Hardison doing something that made the Thief glow with happiness and Hardison shake in his shoes. Sophie was at her theater with her students. The whole group was between jobs, continuing to acclimate to the new city.
And yet Nate had called him.
The fact that Nate wasn't nervous set off low-grade alarm bells in Eliot's head.
Eliot didn't need to say anything to announce his presence – the day Nate Ford didn't notice somebody walking into an empty room, he'd be a dead man anyway. But Nate was already smiling that tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth he saved for the Hitter alone.
"That was quick."
Eliot shrugged and crossed to where Nate was perched on one of the stools at the working desk.
"Wasn't far away."
Nate nodded and pretended he didn't already know that Eliot had bought a place for himself within a mile of the brewpub. Pretended he didn't know that Eliot had timed exactly how long it would take him to run or drive to their base and to each person's main living place. Pretended he didn't know that Eliot was always, without fail, ready to drop anything and come at his call, at any of their calls. Even from the other side of the globe, if they needed him, Eliot would come.
And not just because he was their Hitter and it was his job. Not anymore.
Nate also pretended they didn't both know that part, too.
"I got a call from an old friend back in Boston."
Eliot frowned. "Trouble?"
"Yeah, but not the usual." Nate slid a folder across. "Remember them?"
Eliot opened the file to a very familiar pair of faces. There wasn't much that was outwardly memorable about John Connell, but even if the bland man's face hadn't been instantly recognizable, Eliot could never have forgotten Molly.
If I promise not to cry, will you just tell me the truth?
All right, this is not a drill. These guys are very bad guys, the guys that took you. Okay? But I'm coming for you, Molly. Me. And I'm gonna find you. Now, you tell me, does that sound like the truth?
Eliot, I'm scared.
He looked up. "Is she okay?"
"She's fine, at least right now." Nate nodded. "John Connell called. The Russians that he almost sold that chip to have been leaning on him."
Eliot growled. "It ain't his fault we got involved."
"No, but we stiffed them since we prevented the deal, and we got one of their lieutenants arrested." Nate gave a half-shrug. "Unsurprisingly, they're not taking it well."
"Nate." Eliot felt himself going still and cold, locked and ready to strike. "When Russians don't take it well, people die."
"I'm aware of that. And now, so is Connell." Nate didn't so much as flinch under Eliot's glare. "He called the FBI and he's working with them, but in the meantime, he's worried about his safety and Molly's."
"He should be. The Russians can get to them anywhere if they're not in protective custody."
"Right. So that's why he called." Nate leaned back a little, opening up his posture and muting his signals. "He doesn't trust the FBI to keep Molly safe. He wanted to know if you would come, just until he can arrange more permanent security. Maybe a couple of weeks at the most."
Eliot crossed his arms. "And what are you gonna do while I'm there? Nate, this team can't do its job without a Hitter."
"I know." Nate's deliberately bland expression and body language stayed neutral. "So I wouldn't take one. Unless something came up that was absolutely urgent. And I'd call you if that happened." Then he quirked an eyebrow. "Unless you'd want us to come out there with you."
"No way." Eliot frowned again. "This ain't a heist or a con, Nate. This is keeping killers at bay. You and them got no place in it."
"You're right." Nate's shrug was smooth. "But we'd back you up if you wanted us."
"Not a chance." Eliot's own face bent with a touch of amusement. "You can't con an assassin, Nate. Not even you. You can't grift a garrote or hack a drive-by. And I'd appreciate if you didn't try."
"Noted," Nate said.
"Connell's right – he and Molly aren't safe. And unless he can give the FBI more than a witness statement on a person they already have in custody, they won't go out of their way to protect the Connells."
"So, does that mean you're going?"
Eliot eyed Nate's odd neutrality. "What do you think?"
"I think you have to decide for yourself," Nate said. "This isn't about the team. It's not a con. If Connell had called when we were all on vacation, you could have taken the job on your own and we wouldn't even have known. I don't think this one's really up to me."
One side of Eliot's mouth twisted up in a smirk. "I never said it was. I asked you what you think."
Nate huffed and gave a tiny smile. "I think those Russians better watch out." But he leaned forward then and let a bit of tension creep back into his frame. "If you weren't going, I might go myself. Connell has no idea what he's dealing with."
"Neither would you, Nate."
"Fair enough," he allowed. "But just...watch yourself. Okay?"
Eliot snorted. "I've handled Russians before, Nate. So have you."
"Yeah, and I also remember you half-dead underneath a Tilt-A-Whirl." Nate looked Eliot straight in the eyes. "I know they'll be fine if you're watching over them. Just watch yourself, too."
Eliot was about to reply with something flippant, but stopped at what he could read in Nate's face; Nate wasn't overplaying his concern. This wasn't his 'con face.' This was genuine worry.
"All right, is there something you ain't telling me?"
Nate shook his head. "Not exactly. Just…" But he shook his head again. "Never mind."
"Hey." Eliot waited until Nate was looking at him again. "I'm gonna get this done. I'll keep Connell and Molly safe. And then I'll be back to keep you and the team safe. That's a promise. Okay?"
A shade of relief filtered into Nate's eyes. "Okay."
Eliot grabbed the folder and turned to go.
He paused and looked back over his shoulder.
"Keep in touch."
"And." Nate rose from his place, and his concern and his jokiness and all his general aloof air of being a Mastermind playing with chess pieces vanished – leaving only the man inside all of that who was the person Eliot followed, the person he had come to trust.
"If you need us, we'll come."
That was not the promise of a conman. Not the promise of a tactician. It was the promise of one man to another, of blood to blood. Of family, and loyalty, and bonds that had no words.
Those bonds had snagged them both, snagged them all, and it was the only tie that Eliot would rather die than break.
Eliot gave a single, sharp nod. Acknowledgement, understanding, even wry agreement. But he didn't speak. He didn't need to speak.
Eliot knew Nate could read every word in his heart.
Eliot called Nate the day he arrived in Massachusetts.
"The FBI's still got them staying in their house," he said, without so much as a 'hello' to begin the conversation. "Connell says they're set up next door, but that doesn't mean anything. I think maybe they're playing him."
"How so?" Nate was alone in his own apartment for once, and glad he didn't have to explain any part of this conversation to – or hide it from – Sophie. He started to pace, mind whirring at speed.
"I don't think they're really very interested in protecting him. I think they're using Connell as bait, maybe try and lure in a couple more Russian targets." Eliot's gravelly voice was low and furious.
Nate swallowed. "You need backup?"
"Not yet. I ain't been here long enough to see anything weird other than not nearly enough protection. If the FBI wanted to leave Connell swinging in the wind for the Russians, they're doing a good job of it."
Nate resisted the urge to swear. "How's Molly?"
"Scared," Eliot said. "She doesn't really know what's going on – her dad didn't tell her. He just said I'd be coming to stay for a little while and that everything would be fine."
Nate's instincts started to rattle. "Eliot, something's not right. If Molly were part of the FBI's case against the Russians, she would have given her statement already. She'd know about the investigation."
"Maybe her dad's keeping her out of it, then," Eliot said. "Maybe he didn't even report the kidnapping to them. It would make sense. Make her less of a target."
"Maybe." Nate couldn't help but concede the point, but his gut was roiling with uncertainty. "Look, I'm going to get Hardison to crack into the file, see what the FBI's got and what kind of team has been assigned. Just in case."
"You thinking they've been compromised?"
"I don't know. But something doesn't feel right. Give us a few days. Stay sharp, and call me every day, just in case."
Almost before Eliot ended the call, Nate was dialling Hardison's number.
"Hey, Nate! What's up? We got something?" Hardison sounded easy and relaxed. Nate could presume several things from that open, cheerful tone – that he was not, nor had he been recently, hanging off a building with Parker, that he was not neck-deep in a computer game that would cut his concentration in half for the foreseeable future, and that he was not too busy to drop everything. Which was exactly what Nate needed.
"Not we. I need you to meet me at the office."
Nate made himself smirk so Hardison would hear it. "How do you feel about breaking into the FBI's files today?"
Hardison chuckled. "Hey, any time I get to kick them up, hell yeah! Gimme ten minutes."
"I'm on my way. See you there. And Hardison?"
He tried to keep his words light, but he knew the undercurrent of warning would be there for someone who had learned to listen. "Do me a favor. Don't mention it to Parker if you can help it."
There was a beat of quiet before Hardison answered, voice much less amused. "Nate...what's going on?"
"Hopefully nothing. Meet me there and I'll fill you in."
Nate left Hardison typing frantically and cursing under his breath at whatever digital resistance he met after the first ten hours. He had learned in the past few years that there were only two kinds of success in hacking – success after the first ten minutes, or success only after the first three days of work straight. There never seemed to be any sort of in-between.
Then again, that's how the whole team worked in their respective fields. Parker could either steal something so quick even Nate couldn't track it, or she needed hours or even days. Sophie could con a mark in the first breath or only after weeks of setup. Eliot could clear opponents from the field in the first flurry of blows, or only after a gruelling battle.
But, just as with all those situations, Nate knew they all did better when he was there to lend support – and when they were working for one another. So he kept Hardison company until long after the brewpub closed, though he did grab the last specials of the night before the kitchen shut down. Nate picked at a grilled sandwich half-heartedly; Hardison, he was sure, didn't even remember inhaling his own between furious lines of code and creative insults of people's life choices.
Sandwich gone and Hardison set up with enough snacks and orange soda to keep him going for a week straight, Nate decided to take a walk. He didn't go far, in case Hardison did find something, but he went up to the roof of the building above where Leverage, Incorporated made their home. It afforded a pretty good view of the river, lit up with streetlights and passing cars like spots of flame upon the water.
Leaning on a railing, Nate did some mental math. He knew Eliot had set out from the airport on a stupidly-early morning flight that got him into Boston around midday. He'd called Nate a couple of hours after that, presumably upon doing a first sweep of the situation. By now, midnight on the west coast, Eliot was probably already waking up for his pre-dawn security checks.
Nate considered that he ought to go to bed. Eliot was three hours ahead of them now – calling for a status update at a reasonable time meant morning, and Nate wasn't the most morning-eager person on good days.
But he couldn't stop the thoughts that chased each other around his head. The problem was that any time he pivoted away from Eliot and the Connells, he had to think about the jobs they weren't doing with the Hitter away, or the jobs that were still looming in their future. There were so many loose ends out there. People who had become enemies, people who might have a vested interest in their downfall, people who would be gunning for them.
Honestly, Nate wasn't sure if he was more worried about the whole rest of the team in Portland without the Hitter, or the Hitter alone in Boston without the team.
But Eliot had never shied away from going where he was needed, in spite of the price on his head. Nate knew for sure there were four countries and three different terrorist groups that wanted his Hitter dead or alive – and those were only the ones he knew about. Nate felt a rush of relief that Eliot was alone in such infamy; everybody else might be wanted by the legal authorities, but at least nobody was sitting under a dangling death sentence waiting for it to fall.
Nervous again, Nate abandoned the night air and slipped back inside. The building that housed the brewpub was still and empty with the public areas closed. The private areas of the building, the condos that Hardison had purchased along with the rest of it, were mostly vacant; other than Hardison's own, the only other condo with a tenant was Parker's. And since Nate hadn't seen so much as a shadow of the girl today, he could only guess – with mixed fear and admiration – what she had been doing with her time.
He wondered again if he should move in upstairs, too. On the one hand, it did mean pulling himself even closer to this team, these people who had become his friends and family and a hundred things that didn't have words. On the other, it meant he would be near when they needed him the most.
He was just weighing the question for the tenth time when his phone ringed. And not Hardison's happy pop-song ringtone. It was playing "Thunderstruck."
Nate answered on the second ring. "Eliot?"
Nate froze. He could hear crashing sounds, wood splintering, muffled and not-so-muffled shouting. Eliot's breath was coming in ragged gasps that reminded Nate all too much of how Eliot had been winded after Sterling sent Quinn to take him down. But what arrested his attention the most was the anger, desperation, and fury in his voice.
"Eliot! What is it?"
"It's a set-up, Nate! There was no FBI! Connell played us! He's working for the Russians!"
Nate wanted to ask why. He wanted to ask how Connell could possibly have thought working for the people who kidnapped his daughter was a good idea, and why he would lure Eliot into a trap. He wanted answers, insight, facts.
But he didn't have time for any of that.
"I'll call Bonanno," Nate said. "Just hold out as long as you can."
"Stop." Eliot sucked in a breath and Nate could hear the pain that went with it. "There's no point."
The storm of fear that washed through Nate was so deep, another man might have drowned. But Nathan Ford did not drown, not when his team, his friends, his family, not when they needed him. He soared.
"Eliot. Listen to me. We will come for you. Just hang on. Okay?"
It wasn't okay, it couldn't ever be okay. But it was the only promise Nate could make to his Hitter, his confidant, his right-hand everything.
"No, Nate." Eliot was gathering command of his breathing again, and he growled low and serious. "Then there'll be five bodies instead of just one. Don't...don't throw away your life and their lives. Not for me."
"I didn't call you to get you out here where you can all get killed. I called you because you need to know Connell is dirty. Don't trust him. But don't come out here. They ain't even gonna look for you. I'll make sure of it."
"Take care of them, Nate." The words sounded like they hurt to say, but not the pain of flesh and blood. A keener, darker pain Nate had seen in Eliot only a handful of times. "This ain't your fault. You didn't do this. You didn't…what you did... I was dead. Before you and the team. I was dead. I just...I need you to know. What you gave me...I can't ever repay it."
There was a crash and a frightened cry, high and thin.
"I gotta go. Keep them safe. If there's a way out, I'll find it. And I'll come back. If not...thanks. For being my reason to live."
There was the sound of an explosion – and then nothing.