The Brewpub is empty now, save for their small family, tucked up at the bar with Nate standing behind it. Holly and tinsel and fairy lights are strewn around the room with the ridiculous density that Parker had demanded, and she loves every inch of it.
Nate had already told them, rather firmly, that Christmas presents were off the table this year, but Sophie seems to be taking a good run at changing his mind. Once Parker’s established that no one is going to force her to try catching Hardison in some strange trust exercises, she’s pretty on board with what Sophie is suggesting. After all, the holiday spirit is about more than just physical gifts; and she’s found that sometimes, giving someone words can be far, far more rewarding than stealing them whatever new tech is being developed by Google (although Hardison had seemed to appreciate that a lot too).
“I just think that, well, we’ve been through so much together, all of us,” Sophie is saying, as she casts her gaze around the table to look each of them in the eyes, one by one. “And we should give each other something really personal this year; like, um, I don’t know, a story, or, or, or a secret.”
Eliot raises his wrist to check a non existent watch in an exaggerated ‘oh is that the time’ gesture.
“No, come on,” continues Sophie, sounding a little exasperated but with a smile in her voice, “bear with me please, please. Who’s gonna go first?”
Hardison keeps his eyes down and shakes his head, looking up only to confirm that Sophie’s eyes have slipped over him.
“Eliot,” decides Parker.
Eliot shakes head a fraction and he blinks a few too many times, but before Parker has a chance to push further, he is saved by Nate.
“Alright. When I was a kid, I wanted a trumpet one Christmas,” Nate starts. “My Father played Sinatra, all the time, and uh, Sinatra had this trumpet player named ‘Sweets’ Edison - Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, great sound, amazing. I wanted to sound just like him, you know.
“Christmas rolled around and there was no trumpet, just a pack of baseball cards. And my Father said that, uh, Santa must’ve had a rough year at the tracks so there’s… anyway a couple of days later I wake up in my bed and at the foot of the bed there’s a trumpet, and it’s all tarnished and dinged up; my Dad probably rolled somebody for it. But there it is. And I uh, I played that trumpet every day for ten years. I never… I never uh, ended up sounding like ‘Sweets’ Edison but…
“So I gave it to, um, I gave it to Sam… on his eighth birthday, and that was um… his um… first trumpet lesson was scheduled for the day, as it turns out, that he went into the hospital. And I… so he… I don’t have anything left… from my childhood, but I did keep the trumpet, I keep it on the boat.”
There’s a moment of heavy silence, and Parker gets the sense that it’s not just her who hadn’t been anticipating something quite so intimate. Sophie’s eyes glisten with unshed tears, and even Eliot and Hardison look a little more shiny eyed than Parker is used to.
“Okay, who’s next?” Nate asks, breaking the stillness which had settled over the room.
Sophie looks around at them all again to no avail. Parker doesn’t volunteer Eliot up after that; she doesn’t know what he’ll say, but she’s worried if it’s anything even half as emotional as what Nate shared she’ll end up sobbing.
“Fine,” Sophie rolls her eyes but she’s smiling, “I’ll go next. But I’m going to need a drink first.”
Wordlessly, Nate pulls out five shot glasses and turns around to scan his fingers over the bottles lining the back of the bar.
“Ooh. Get the cinnamon one,” Parker tells him, because it’s Christmas.
Nate nods in acquiescence and fills each glass with cinnamon whiskey.
“Here,” he says, sliding the glasses across to each member of the team.
Parker wonders if it's an inappropriate time to make a toast ‘To Christmas’, and, by the way everyone else is quickly knocking back their drinks, she thinks she was right to hesitate. Instead she picks up her shot and swallows it down in one quick hit of fire to the back of her throat. The burn runs its course quickly though, settling down to leave the sweet heat of cinnamon.
“Okay,” Sophie says in a low voice, once all the shot glasses are sitting empty on the bar, “I am deathly afraid of… of the dark. Mhm. Always have been. When I was a little girl I used to get the most horrible night terrors and I’d wake up scr- well, yes, and then at some point I just started refusing to sleep on my own. I used to crawl into bed with my Mother and… she’d sing to me and stroke my hair and…” She trails off with a faraway look in her eyes.
“Sophie?” Parker prompts, after a minute has passed.
“Oh. Sorry. She just… she had the most beautiful voice. I always wished I could sing like her. My talents lie in acting, I suppose… but still.”
“How did you get over it?” Hardison asks.
Sophie’s lips curl into a half smile. “I didn’t,” she says simply. “I don’t think I ever will. When I’m alone I sleep with the lights on… although…”
She looks at Nate and he looks back at her, as if they’re the only two people in existence. Parker thinks she understands, sometimes she feels like that about Hardison and Eliot. They’re her people, the ones that matter more than anything.
“Me next,” she chirps happily, because she’s thought of something interesting that she’s fairly confident she’s not told anyone about before. “More cinnamon first though!”
Hardison grins next to her, knocking an elbow softly into her side just as an excuse for physical contact. “You heard her!”
Nate and Sophie give a tiny, almost imperceptible nod towards each other. Parker wonders what silent conversation they’ve been having, but she knows not to ask. She didn’t used to know stuff like that; it’s just another gift her family have given her without them even realising.
Glasses recharged, they all drink, and this time in unison. As before the whiskey burns a little before it’s replaced by the cinnamon. It tastes like Christmas.
Parker bounces happily in her seat, excited to share her gift with the team and be a part of what Nate and Sophie have started.
“My driving license is fake,” she tells them.
Sophie’s eyes widen and Eliot hides a smile behind his hand.
“I never passed my test. I took it ten times when I was old enough, but for some reason I kept failing. And I always thought that was strange, because I’d been driving for a lot longer than most other sixteen year olds. Oh - there was one time where it was all going really well though, maybe my sixth attempt? But then I think the lady scoring the test, uh, she realised the car was… acquired… through channels that were, uh…” She glances around at the various raised eyebrows and skeptical faces. “Okay, okay. It was a stolen car, I stole cars. Lots of them.”
Hardison reaches out and runs a reassuring hand across her back, while Eliot pulls his hand away from his face, showing the faint smile he’s been watching her with.
“In the end, one of the guys from the crew I was running with showed me where to go to get a license forged, so that’s what I did. I still have it. Not... I don’t carry it around with me, not anymore. I’ve got way better forgeries now for Alice White and the other people I sometimes am. But, that first one was the only one I ever got with my real name on it.” She smiles to herself as she remembers the warm feeling of finally having something that proved who she was: Parker. “So… yeah.”
She spreads her fingers in front of her and looks up expectantly at the warm faces of her team. Hardison’s hand disappears from her back and he leans over and kisses her cheek. She thinks that means her gift was well received.
“Thank you Parker,” Sophie says, then she looks pointedly across the bar at Hardison and Eliot. “Well? Which one of you is going next?”
Hardison grimaces slightly but gives a small nod. “Okay. Hit me up first though.”
Nate reaches back for the cinnamon whiskey and pours it for them all for the third time, leaving the bottle out on the bar as he sees the pattern of ‘story-drink-story-drink’ emerging.
“So when I was eighteen I tracked down my birth parents. I wasn’t supposed to be able to, but, you know, I was eighteen and I had a computer.” He shrugs as if hacking sealed records is a universal teenage experience. “Anyway it didn’t take me long. And then I just… sat on the information for a bit. Couldn’t work out what to do with it. Eventually I spoke to Nana about it, and she… well, she was damn cool, was Nana. So I took the names I found and did some more searches…” He swallows heavily and Parker reaches out a hand to clasp over his.
“T-turns out, they were great. Happy. And they both had families by then. Not together. They... I guess they were just too young when I was born, so…” He shrugs again but his face looks a little lighter now and there’s a hint of a smile. “I mean they were happy. And I had Nana and a fuckton of foster siblings. Life wasn’t always easy when we were growing up, but we were happy.
“I… I don’t know what I wanted to find when I first started looking for my parents. Finding them doing so well was… actually it was nice, even though I never contacted them. I suppose…mostly... I learnt that the family you make can be just as great as what you’re born with.”
Parker gives his hand a squeeze and on Hardison’s other side Eliot knocks shoulders with him, saying something in a soft deep voice that Parker can’t quite hear, but which sounds suspiciously like, “You big sap.”
“Hardison that- that was… really special.” Sophie clears her throat, her eyes are glistening again with emotion. Parker wonders if hers are the same.
“I guess that leaves me,” Eliot drawls with an easy grin that doesn’t match his damp eyelashes. “Go on then.” He motions to the cinnamon whiskey.
Nate sighs. “I should never have stood behind the bar,” he laments, even as he sets to work refilling all the shot glasses again.
They all take their glasses and this time Parker manages to slip in, “To family!” as they all drink, and there’s a return murmur of ‘to family’ as the glasses clink back down onto the bar.
“Um. So…” Eliot scratches his cheek. “I always kinda wanted- Or, no... I always thought that… that one day I’d be… y’know. A Dad.” He pulls a face to himself, but the rest of the team are looking at him so openly and with such kindness that he can’t not take the opportunity to share. “When Hardison made that blog… stupid, by the way… but those things I said about what kind of Dad I’d wanna be… yeah. That, uh, that was real.
“An' what you gotta know is, where I grew up, that was what was expected. You know, find a girl, get married, have a family. That’s just what people did. Even when I first enlisted I still thought that um… maybe… I don’t know…"
There's a sort of helplessness in the way he shrugs, and if Parker's heart weren't already breaking for Nate and Sophie and Hardison, then it would be now.
“I know it ain’t happenin’. But, just… sometimes...” He looks uneasy now, and Parker can empathise. Out of all of them, he is the most closed off about sharing things like this; personal things. She hopes he knows how much she treasures his gift to them all.
Hardison claps a hand gently onto Eliot’s shoulder and opens his mouth to speaks, but then closes it.
“Eliot…” Sophie says eventually.
He takes a slow breath and then smiles. “Hey,” he says in a voice rough with emotion, “I still got family.” He doesn’t say ‘which is more’n I ever thought I’d get’, but Parker reads it anyway, in the warmth of his eyes and the set of his jaw and a million other things she can’t pinpoint.
Reading people is hard, but reading her people is easy.
"Thank you, everyone. I really mean it. I didn't really-" Sophie cuts off with a sniffle and she lifts a delicate finger to wipe away a tear. "This was just… really nice and I'm so glad that… that we all found our way here."
She gestures around the bar and beyond, towards the golden twinkling lights in the window and the abundance of mistletoe that Parker hung there. They stay like that for a long moment, processing what they've each shared, just enjoying the quiet, and each other.
Then Nate picks up the cinnamon whisky bottle “A final round then?” he asks, already pouring.
This time, almost as if there’s an unspoken agreement, the five of them raise their glasses together and Parker finds herself faced with four expectant faces, as if they’ve been waiting for this all evening.
“To Christmas,” she says.
And Eliot smirks, and Sophie giggles, and Hardison winks, and Nate gives a nod.
“To Christmas,” they repeat.
It’s a perfect night.
And, fractured though they may be individually, they’re a perfect family.