A/N: New year, new story! Not much action to start, and updates may be a little sporadic due to the need to maintain a "real life" but this story will never be abandoned. I just needed to post this chapter to get some momentum going.
There will be a lot of team-as-family love and maybe a few traces of Parker/Hardison and even fewer traces of Nate/Sophie, all cannon, but romance is definitely not the focus.
Later chapters will have some violence, language in context, yelling, angst, tears, etc...Most things will be at the level of any Leverage episode for now, but any specific chapter that I think warrants a stronger warning will be noted.
The Brick Wall Job, chapter 1
Drinking oneself into oblivion was not guaranteed to keep the nightmares away, and it certainly never led to a pleasant morning. Case in point, this morning, where Nate tried desperately to drift back to sleep despite the pounding of his carefully-stationary head and the sensation that something small and furry had died and was rotting away in his mouth.
Nate sometimes wondered, in his more drunken-philosophical moments, if Eliot had ever learned this lesson the hard way, and taken it well to heart, or if he was simply strong enough not to have tried it in the first place. Either way, Nate had never seen the man exhibit anything more than mild hangover symptoms, and that only if heavy drinking was required for a con. But as far as Nate was concerned, Eliot had every right and reason to tie one on whenever he wanted.
It was mornings like this, after a con that had almost turned tragic, after Nate would pointedly glue himself to a barstool to brood on the "almost" part while his team chose to celebrate the "didn't" part, that he truly envied whatever coping mechanisms the others had that let them avoid this run-over-by-a-bus morning after.
Oh, he hadn't intended to spend the night drunkenly brooding, alone again. Sophie had pointedly left early (Home. To my own apartment) when Nate had pointedly ignored her pointed looks as he ordered his second round. He was vaguely aware of Eliot leaving not long after with some leggy blonde, and of Parker and Hardison dissolving into smiles and giggles at a booth in the corner. Nate told himself he was only going to have a nightcap while looking over some potential new clients but the truth was (and he was damn well not too far gone to at least acknowledge it!) that he was well on the way to drinking himself past the welling guilt and self-reproach this job had dredged up in him.
Nate, if I'm engaged...
Do your worst.
The words had echoed in his head as he ordered a third round.
Nate didn't often second-guess himself. And he would rather not be doing so now, while the room tilted nauseatingly around him like some cursed carnival ride, as he kept his eyes squeezed shut against the morning sun. Note to self: just leave the damn window blinds down permanently! So no, the drinking wasn't a solution, he'd long been aware of that. And it didn't make for a pleasant morning, not by a long shot. And it hadn't kept any nightmares at bay.
It had muddled them, certainly. Given him nothing more than vague impressions of activity, half-muffled noises...No colors or solid forms, only shapes and shadows in motion around him, not frantic, but not calm either. Not the beeping and bustle of the blue-tinged pediatric ward, the keening and wailing and begging and useless people who couldn't save his boy. It left him with only a strong, unfocused, sense of dread.
Or maybe that sense of dread was more physical than psychological. Nate contemplated the wisdom of attempting to ignore the building nausea versus levering himself upright to stagger to his bathroom. Allowing himself a quiet groan, he settled on a happy medium instead. Small steps beginning great journeys or some crap like that he told himself. He pried his eyes open first, blinking against the light and trying to force the blur around him into recognizable shapes.
One of those shapes resolved itself into a certain blond-haired thief, perched vulture-like upon the footboard of his bed. Nate scrambled up and backward, managing to whack his already-throbbing head quite soundly on the wall behind him.
"Geeze Parker! What the hell are you doing?!" And how long have you been here?! Because Nate was pretty damn sure he had been actually awake and arguing with his hangover for the better part of an hour.
"Waking you up. Sophie said I 'drew the short straw' whatever that means." Parker made air quotes while managing to remain precariously perched on the footboard. She stared at him with an intensity usually reserved for the most "fiddly" of locks, but continued matter of factly, "Eliot didn't make us breakfast."
Nate squinted at her, blinking and buying time to calm his runaway heart. At least the sudden shock seemed to have temporarily quelled his nausea, and partly cleared his head. "Eliot doesn't always make us breakfast, Parker. And I'm not cooking anything for you, either. There's cereal in the cabinet."
Parker rolled her eyes and unleashed a sigh that sounded for all the world like she thought she was speaking with a particularly dim-witted child. She rose gracefully and in one fluid motion stepped forward from the footboard to instead take a spot on Nate's bed, where his feet had previously resided. She crouched down again and leaned forward on the balls of her feet.
"Eliot likes to cook for us when he feels guilty. And he felt guilty yesterday, after the carnival. 'Cause Molly got abducted and he almost had to kill people." All this was delivered matter-of-factly, but that did nothing to quiet the sudden voices in Nate's head, seemingly as clear and real as if he were still wearing an earbud.
Nate, if I'm engaged...
Do your worst.
Parker spoke again before his thoughts could swirl any deeper, and she began counting off bullet points on her fingers.
"And Eliot went to the farmer's market last weekend. He bought a lot of fresh healthy stuff. He only does that if he's going to use it right away, because he doesn't like to waste it, and it's in your fridge. Which means no one will actually eat it unless Eliot makes us eat it. So, Eliot was going to come here and make us breakfast."
Nate rubbed at the fresh bruise on the back of his head, under the tangle of hair, trying mightily to follow Parker's leaping logic. "He was pretty beat up yesterday, you sure he was up to cooking?"
"He was up to going on a 'date' last night, with some 'nurse'." Parker made elaborate finger quotes again, also taking the opportunity to scoot further up Nate's bed. Nate pulled his feet closer to himself in defense. She sounded...not disgusted, but more put out. Like Eliot's hiring a "nurse" was some personal insult against Parker's ability to stitch and bandage him up. Nate hadn't missed how she had immediately shooed Eliot, actually shooed him, complete with little flaps of her hands, into the apartment's downstairs bathroom as soon as the team had returned from the carnival.
In his more soft-hearted sober moments, Nate allowed himself a bemused appreciation that Eliot was willing to teach Parker things like that. Out of the rest of the team, she really was best-suited to be Eliot's unofficial apprentice. She compartmentalized so well, could ruthlessly separate fear and uncertainty from what simply needed to be done. And she seemed to soak up every new thing thrown at her. Surely Eliot trusted Parker's skills, so the fact his date was a "nurse" must have just been coincidence, and Parker had simply missed the cues.
"Well, there you go. He's probably still with her." Nate decided his nausea would hold off after all, and he tried to slip back under the covers and into unconsciousness, but Parker had worked herself nearly two-thirds of the way up his bed now and, Nate was not too proud to admit, her intensity was getting a little creepy.
"Eliot doesn't like to fall asleep with people around. He barely sleeps with any of us around. He would have had his 'fun'," the finger quotes were now directly in Nate's face, "then gone home after his 'date,' and then he would have come here this morning like usual." Parker finished by stabbing the center of Nate's chest with a forefinger.
The finger remained hovering over his breastbone and she intermittently stabbed him with it as she continued her litany. "Eliot left blueberries, eggs, flour, cream cheese, buttermilk, and his waffle iron here. So, he was intending to make us Belgian waffles. And since we were all going to be here for a post-job briefing..."
"Yeah, but not 'til this aftern..." Nate tried to intercept the stabbing finger, but he was finding coordination difficult.
"AND since Eliot felt guilty, today would have been perfect for him to make them. But he's not HERE." She stabbed the finger at Nate's breastbone once more, digging it in this time.
Nate couldn't really fault her logic, odd though it tended to be. Parker had an uncanny understanding of Eliot sometimes, and if she was certain Eliot should have been here this morning...well, that was good enough to make Nate's concern flash at least a code yellow. He reluctantly gave up any further thought of sleeping in, and ran his fingers through his unruly hair. "What time is it? Did you try calling him?"
"Almost eight, and Hardison says the only two numbers he has for Eliot go straight to voicemail. They aren't 'pinging' anywhere either, which he says means the phones are disabled. And the last known location he has for them is here." This time, Nate managed to deflect the incoming finger.
"Okay, Parker. Let me out of bed." Parker rose from her crouch and jumped daintily off Nate's bed, then stood expectantly, still watching him.
"...Parker? Go downstairs. While I get dressed."
"Oh. Okay." And she turned and disappeared from Nate's room.
Rising from his bed and dressing himself turned out to be much easier than Nate had feared when he first woke this morning. Apparently, having the crap scared out of him, and being given a new case for his mind to work on, made for a potent hangover remedy.
The only problem being: this case was much too close to home. And the nausea again turned vaguely in his gut as Nate wondered: did yesterday have anything to do with Eliot's absence today?
Nate, if I'm engaged...
Do your worst.
When Nate arrived downstairs, he found Hardison hard at work typing, with Sophie hanging directly over his shoulder. She wordlessly tossed him an earbud, and he caught and slipped it in without breaking stride toward the kitchen.
"Parker? Where are you?" Nate found the oversized "World's Greatest Mastermind" novelty mug, something that had inexplicably turned up under the tree last Christmas, and which he usually shoved to the back of his cabinet, was waiting beside the coffee maker. No matter, he needed the oversize dose of caffeine this morning.
"On the roof keeping watch," Parker chirped brightly through the coms.
"Why?" The oversize mouth of the oversize mug ensured Nate's coffee pouring went off without a hitch.
"Listen to Hardison."
Coffee in hand, Nate leaned against the breakfast bar, waiting for Hardison to finish with whatever he was typing.
"While Parker was upstairs dragging your lazy ass outta bed, I found some really disturbing news out of Europe..." He pointedly ignored Nate's stare and started opening windows to display on the big screens.
"Okay, y'all know I have these crawlers an' things I send out to troll the Internet, the Dark Web, all that? You know, kinda keep an eye out for possible clients or targets, keep an eye on some of our past clients and victims..." Hardison glanced around, blinking as if he'd just woken up. "Cut to the chase, got it. Th' crawlers jus' started pickin' this stuff up...Y'know how San Lorenzo barely had a toe in the 20th century?"
"Oh come on, Hardison. It wasn't that bad. They had the Internet..."
"Yeah, like nineties Internet. Sophie, the point is, it was still the Dark Ages in San Lorenzo, kinda like Cuba...took a while for any o' this news to hit the modern Internet here..."
Hardison poked at a button on his keyboard and a grainy, jumpy, video started playing. It could have been any of thousands of Mediterranean-style buildings, its side blown out and half-reduced to rubble and flame. With the lack of any clear landmarks on the film, no one could say with certainty where it was. But it was as if a grave-chilled wind blew past him as Nate shuddered with a sudden dread. Screw code yellow, his concern ratcheted straight to code fire engine red.
"Around ten or eleven last night, our time and early-ass mornin' for them, the Parliament Building was bombed. There's no word on casualties, motive, nothin', 'cause everything is mass confusion right now. Their Presidential Palace is near by, and was damaged in the blast."
"My God," Sophie's voice was barely a whisper.
"There's no word on President Vittori, only rumors that the country is currently under martial law. Nothin' beyond local news is carryin' the story yet 'cause pretty much NO ONE in the WORLD knows San Lorenzo even exists, an' everyone else is focused on the Middle East an' Al Qaeda...who gives a rip 'bout a tiny unassuming country on the Mediterranean Sea?" Hardison paused for breath and a hearty swig of orange soda. "An' anyway, I'm sure WE all know who's behind this."
Sophie spoke before Nate could shake off his chill. "Oh that stupid, stupid man! He's gone off by himself again, just like when we first went after Moreau, and he was out 'keeping tabs...'" What's the deal with the finger quotes today? Nate had to smother the sudden urge to laugh hysterically. "...on the wanker without telling us he used to work for him! That bloody self-sacrificing idiot is going to get himself killed!"
"But if he thought we were in danger, he wouldn't leave us without protection..." Hardison looked like he wanted to believe Sophie's assessment was wrong, that Eliot was just late because he had slept in with some dame...but Nate could see it in his eyes. They all knew Sophie had hit the target dead-on.
And now, Nate was well-beyond fire engine red. Before the team, hell, before he could become paralyzed with fear and indecision, Nate prodded them back to work.
"Hardison, do we have a contact number for Eliot's friend in San Lorenzo? The General?"
"Nothing personal, the number Eliot used the first time was compromised. And the San Lorenzo government switchboard is understandably not there right now. Do YOU have a contact for that Italian chic? 'Cause the number we used before is disconnected." Hardison tried to take a swig from his empty orange soda bottle. Sophie plucked it from his hand.
Nate had retrieved his phone and was already dialing. The number clicked out of service. He shook his head. "Guess she held up her end of the deal and figured that was that. We're on our own. Just keep doing what you're...uh, doing, and let me think..."
"Look, the tech in this country is still back-assward, okay? I'm working on it!"
Ever the calming voice of reason, bless her heart, Sophie called for a time out. "Look everyone, we need to stay calm and work through this objectively, right? We can't just..."
But she was interrupted by Parker, who had remained silent and forgotten through the entire discussion.
"Guys? We're being watched."