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The Bunny Farm

Chapter Text

 

For once, everything in the world seemed to settle down. There weren't any people that desperately needed saving. No wealthy but currupted business folk that needed knocked down a few pegs. Not even anything weird or just plain hinky going on.

Eliot Spencer didn't trust the day at all.

He was working with the last of kitchen staff after the dinner rush, Parker and Hardison both tucked in a booth by the door, and Sophie and Nate were --at his last check in at least-- quietly conspiring at the end of the Brewpub's bar. Everything was calm and together and not blowing up, yet Eliot couldn't shake the feeling that something terrible was on its way (it was a very distinctive feeling).

Terrible walked into his pub ten minutes before closing.

The door chimed open, and Eliot heard the chatter between hacker and thief pause for a beat before Parker loudly called out, "Hey Eliot!"

With a sigh Eliot snagged a dish towel on his way out to the bar, drying his hands and wondering what Parker could possibly want with him. Somehow he didn't notice how quiet everything had gotten. Not until he was through the kitchen door and looking up from his hands and surveying the place purely on instinct and-

And stopped dead in his tracks as his eyes locked with an almost identical pair. Suddenly, he wasn't the thirty-one year old hitter, retrieval specialist, killer, or ex-solider. Suddenly he was an eighteen year old kid again, bag on his shoulder and tears burning behind his eyes and his mirror image standing firm in the doorway to try to stop him from running. Suddenly, Eliot felt his world crumble around his as the anger sparked deep in those familiar and foreign blue eyes.

"You better be a doppelganger or so help me I will kill you myself." The silence shattered and everyone, including the redheaded woman and Asian man who came in with him, stared at the man. Eliot flinched, and the action only seemed to spur the other on. "We got a flag, Eliot. A flag. Had a funeral with an empty casket because they said there wasn't enough left to bury and your CO personally gave me your dog tags and you say something right now before I do something real stupid, E."

Tense silence followed, and Eliot brushed his hair out of his face with shaking hands. He was distantly aware of everyone watching him, but he couldn't focus on anything besides the man in front of him. He looked so different than Eliot last remembered. Wore their age better. Didn't have the world weary look or hard jaded edges Eliot had earned through their decade and change apart. They weren't mirror images of each other like before. And now Eliot couldn't think of anything to say besides, "You've gotten a helluva lot more grown Jake." It wasn't the right thing. Wasn't the 'I'm sorry' or 'Forgive me' or any of the other thoughts swirling madly through his head in a storm. Jake was always the better with words out of the pair, always the one Eliot could rely on to say what he couldn't, but now Eliot couldn't lean on him for the words and had already spoken and-

Jake's eyes burned with cold fury and between one second and the next he was gone, the two with him following through the slamming door as Eliot watched helplessly. Numbly. He could hear Nate dismissing the last of the staff, hear Hardison lock the front door. It was all smothered and faraway. Not important after what he'd just heard and said and didn't say. He wanted to run out into the street and go find Jake but his feet weren't moving and what would he try to tell the man anyway?

Parker was there, sitting on the damn bar top like he told her not to do all the time and her eyes finding his. Eliot flinched back, knowing he'd aided in shattering some of the innocence that was no longer in Jake's eyes and scared he'd do the same to Parker. Instead he looked down to the tiled floor, listening as the rest of the crew settled around him.

Nate, always the leader and never one to deal with bullshit, asked the most obvious question in a tone like he was asking about the weather and not something that was destroying Eliot. "Who was that?"

Who was that? Damn good question that Eliot struggled to find words for. Honestly the man was a stranger, a ghost from his past that Eliot left behind almost fourteen years ago deep in Oklahoma. What could he say about the man? Truthfully?

"That was Jake," he finally admitted, turning over the memories like a heavy stone in his heart he hadn't touched in a while. Brushing off the dirt and dust, remembering all the laughs and smiles and backyard brawls more fun than harmful. All the times they'd mess with people by dressing the same. All the nights spent watching each other's backs as Jake read his art books or Eliot plucked at a guitar or did anything else Pops didn't like. All the times they stood together to take a beating they earned or didn't or that was aimed at someone else. All the times they'd patch each other up after. Eliot swallowed, the stone only getting heavier as he remembered seeing the hope fade from Jake's eyes as he pushed past him through the door that last time. "He's.... He's my brother. My twin brother." Older by seven minutes, but always littler in Eliot's mind.

The room seemed to hold its breath for several long beats, each of his teammates --his family-- processing what exactly Eliot had said and what it meant. Not surprising, Parker was the first to speak.

"So what are we waiting for?" She hopped off the counter, Eliot finally looking up and shocked at her open expression of acceptance. "Let's go. We have an Eliot-clone to steal."

Eliot didn't feel like telling her that wasn't exactly how twins worked, but he felt himself smile just a bit and think that maybe, just maybe, Jake would come back. And maybe when he did, Eliot would be able to find the words to keep him there.

Chapter Text

The Foster Family Job

When Nate and Sophie go to the center, they aren't expecting the small blonde girl who is maybe --maybe-- seven. Her hair is thin and face a little pale and nothing like what Nate imagined.

"You said she's a problem child?" He asks and turns to look at their case worker while Sophie just watches the little girl play with a very dingy stuffed rabbit.

The man is a greaseball if Nate's ever seen one, and has to read the file before answering Nate like he had never opened it before. "Yes, Alice White," Mr. Dubenich starts, smiling at Nate in a way that screams he doesn't actually care. "Poor girl. Been in the system for years. High flight risk. Almost went to a detention facility before we matched you. She apparently stabbed her last foster father with a fork for no reason."

Looking back to the room Nate couldn't decide if his blood wanted to freeze in his viens for what was done to the girl, or boil at the nonchalance Dubenich said it. Clearly no one had cared to actually look into the situation, if a seven year old girl was being almost locked away and not an adult man. Nate took a calming breath, looking over at Sophie for strength. His wife seemed to know exactly what he was thinking (as she always did) and took his hand in hers, giving it a light squeeze as she turned a charming smile onto the social worker. "Me and Nate would love to meet her before she comes with us," she said smoothly, and without waiting for a reply she opened the door and strolled into the room like she owned he place.

It seemed the instant the door opened Alice was up and across the room, holding the ragged toy animal close to her chest and watching as Sophie calmly took one of the adult sized chairs. Nate shut the door behind him, right in Dubenich's (stupid, gross, fat ugly) face, and chose a chair a little further away from the girl than Sophie. She already looked cornered, wide blue eyes that shined with clever mischief and wit scanning the room. She was smart, nothing like the dull dimwitted child her file portrayed her as, and Nate watched the girl with his own open curiosity. "Hi. I'm Nate, this is my wife, Sophie. We wanted to meet you, see if you wanted to stay with us for a while Alice."

"That's not my name," the girl muttered and clug closer to her stuffed animal, eyes narrowing at Nate.

For his part, Nate just blinked a few times, lost. The file hadn't mentioned a different name but then again, that's what the meeting was for. "We won't call you that then," he promised, glancing to Sophie and seeing her nod in agreement. "What do you want to be called?"

The look of surprise on the girl's face hurt Nate at an almost physical level. Slowly, she lowered her rabbit to just hug it instead of almost hiding behind it. "Parker," she said, and when Nate smiled softly at her trusting them with her name she too smiled, the hint of something almost wild and fae flickering in her eyes. "My name is Parker, and this is Mr. Bunny."

Nate felt his smile widen and for a moment something just clicked right in him. He didn't have words. Thankfully, Sophie did. "Well then, we best get you and Mr. Bunny packed up if you're going to come with us. Do you want to Parker?"

The nod they got was silent, shy, but sure, and Parker became family that day.

[Line break]

The next one they got is a surprise in that Dubenich brings the gangly boy to their doorstep. Parker, who was actually nine and just very small, had been living with them for six months and hadn't run once and apparently that meant Nate and Sophie could take more children. "Emergency placement. It's only temporary," Dubenich explained as he smiled that greasy smile and patted the kid on the shoulder.

In a little under an hour Nate and Sophie are the temporary guardians for eight year old Alec Hardison, orphaned young and bounching homes until he settled in with a June 'Nana' Ellington. From what information Nate could gather, the woman had fostered many children with her late husband, but unfortunately when she became widowed the state moved all the children out of the house. Sophie's dramatic heart bleed for the story, and Nate rolled his eyes fondly as his wife clucked and mother-henned the boy into eating a sandwich.

Thankfully Dubenich didn't stay long, and Nate hoped that not all children were dropped off just like that. The very idea sent shivers down his spine, knowing how some foster houses were worse than any child should ever experience. Looking at Alec and how gaurded he seemed, Nate knew the boy had experienced some of that evil.

"Is he staying here?" Nate blinked and glanced down, noticing Parker standing right next to him and watching Alec with a strange look.

Looking back at his new foster son and wife, Nate nodded. "Yeah, he's gonna stay with us. If you're okay with that," he added, watching Parker closely.

She had grown so much already in six months, so different from the cornered girl he first met, and when she nodded and smiled up at him Nate knew he was never going to let her go. "Yeah. I think I'm okay with that."

She initiated contact --something that made Nate's heart soar-- and he wrapped an arm around her in a hug. "Then he'll stay."

Sophie called them into the kitchen, and Nate smiled at his family that had grown by one.

[Line break]

It's almost nine months later when Nate gets a call. They're having a family game night, which follows that same basic script every week with them all starting a board game together, then Hardison (as he liked to be called, claimed it made him more grown up) would start winning with loopholes in the rules, and Parker would start cheating to catch up without being caught, and Sophie and Nate would step out to let the kids fight it out over more and more complex and crazy rules before Sophie would step back in and decide a winner. It was fun and entertaining every time.

They were at the second to last step, with Sophie starting dinner and Parker arguing a new Monopoly rule (something about renting hotels enough to own them or something equally ridiculous) when the home phone rings. After three rings and an inward debate on if it was worth it, Nate hauled himself up and picked up the line in the hall way.

"Hello, Ford residence," he answered, leaning against the wall and wondering who would be calling.

"Nate, I need your help with something here." The voice of James Sterling made Nate pause, and he turned away from the living room like it would give more privacy.

Normally his friend didn't ask for help with anything, let alone ask Nate. "What happened? Is there a case?" They were both detectives at the city police station, and if Sterling was calling it might cut Nate's night short.

"No no, nothing like that I don't think," the British man muttered, sounding distracted. "I'm calling in a favor if you and Sophie can help. I'll be pulling some strings but, well.."

Running a hand through his hair, Nate wondered what he had gotten himself into. "Anything."

There was a pause on the other line and a sigh, before Sterling finally said, "Your social worker friend is here. Kid is gonna go to juvie and has a rap sheet already. Nathan, this slim ball is pushing for jail. As much as I dislike this kid I dislike Mr. Dubenich more."

Nate closed his eyes and forced himself to calm down. "What'd the kid do?"

"Beat a foster father half to death. Man's in a coma. Nate," Sterling interrupted, and Nate closed his mouth while wondering how his friend knew he was about to protest. "The kid has bruises at least a week old, an arm I'm pretty certain is broken, and there's three younger foster siblings that are refusing to talk in the same condition. His whole rap sheet is like that, fights started defending some other kid, but no one cares besides you and Sophie with your damn bleeding hearts."

And that was the truth of it. Without letting himself second guess himself Nate thanks Sterling (something he will deny forever), tells Sophie were he's going, and a long seven hours later Nate returns to his house in the middle of the night with sixteen year old Eliot Spencer in tow. Sterling was right about the condition the boy was in, and they had to take a detour to the hospital to cast his left arm and wrap several ribs that were cracked and broken. One eye was swollen shut and black down past his cheekbone but still he glared out as if daring Nate to say something.

Heaving a sigh Nate gestured to the sofa and sat down in the armchair, glancing at his watch. 3:47 am. But the conversation needed to be had. "Sit, please." The teen doesn't sit, which isn't really a surprise, but it makes something old and deep inside Nate itch for a drink. He won't though, not with the children now.

"I'm not going to hold your past against you," he started, making sure to meet Eliot's eyes in an open and honest expression. "But I have two other children in the house, and I will not let you hurt either of them understand?"

That got a reaction, though when he saw the anger sparking in those blue eyes Nate almost flinched. Almost. "I ain't never hurt kids," he growled out, a deep southern drawl clear. He hadn't really said anything before, and had his the accent when he did, so Nate figured Eliot took care to hide it. Why the boy felt he needed to, Nate didn't really want to ponder on.

Nate nodded, knowing that Eliot wasn't lying. "Understood. Just wanted to hear it from your own mouth," he explained, allowing a small smile at the surprised look on Eliot's face. "I would never hurt them. Or you, for that matter, but I don't expect you to believe me right now. In time, I'd like for you trust me and Sophie both." Eliot's face was slack, disbelieving, and Nate could see the moment he finally gave in to his body's exhaustion and his shoulders slumped. At that moment Nate was struck by how small Eliot actually was, how he was still a child.

Mind made up and conversation as done as it was going to get for the night --morning, honestly-- Nate stood and nodded down the hall, not wanting to touch the boy and put him further out of his comfort zone. "Come on, your room is down here. You can meet the others whenever you wake up tomorrow."

Eliot watched him for several seconds, then finally nodded and followed. It took only a few more minutes to explain where the bathroom was, the kitchen, and his and Sophie's room just in case. Nate promised to buy clothing the next day like he had done for the others, and was almost out the door when he heard a quiet clearing of a throat behind him.

"I uhm," Eliot started, stopped, and scolwed down at his busted arm like it had offended him. "Thanks, Ford."

Nate smiled despite his own day catching up. "Don't worry Eliot. Goodnight."

"Night," he heard before the door clicked shut, and Nate climbed into bed with his wife that night knowing his family was more complete than it ever was or would be.

Chapter Text

Neither Nate nor Sophie really know how to be parents. Sophie never had children, and Sam never made it home from the hospital. So when they get Parker, they do what they think is right. They enroll her in public school.

It is definitely not the right thing to do.

Parker lasts two weeks before Nate pulls her out, tired of the phone calls and meetings and talk of testing her for 'learning disablities'. Her teacher suggests medication and that's the final straw. He knows he's being stubborn, but Sophie lets him pull her out and they take a month of looking at different private schools until they decide on homeschooling. Nate isn't able to do it, but Sophie only really works at her theater on the weekends or very rarely at night so it works well.

Sophie uses a lot of curriculum from online and from books in the library. Their girl excells at math and anything logic based or mechanical, though poetry and such go right over her head. Sophie tries her best to socialize the girl, but shopping trips and coffee outtings only go so far.

Then they get Hardison, and everything changes again.

[Line break]

They do research before sending Hardison to school. Nana had kept school records and report cards and all the things needed to enroll a child. They send him to a good public school a short ways away.

Again, that is the wrong choice. Less wrong than sending Parker, but still.

Hardison stays at the school for almost a month before a teacher brings up accelerated courses, and the gym coach expresses concerns for the young boy. Apparently Hardison was being bullied, and when Sophie heard she spent a good amount of time crying before whiplashing to anger at teachers and the bullies. After some more in depth searching they put Hardison in a private school where he does much better. He's above average in most areas, slightly below in anything that requires real physical skill, but where he shines is in computers and programming. It makes Sophie proud of him, and worries Nate despite Sophie and Hardison both promising it'd be fine.

(It's not quite fine, but neither parent will learn that until later)

Much like Parker, Hardison isn't the best socially though he is much more aware of how he should act. Getting him to relax and do things naturally is hard, but it's Parker who surprisingly coaxes him out of his shell. Hardison takes all her quirks in stride, and Nate couldn't be more proud of them.

[Line Break]

When Eliot comes along, it's the middle of a school year and he's already enrolled in a public high school across town. Nobody mentions anything and while he is withdrawn Nate doesn't think Eliot is being bullied. Eliot talks about school like any teen would. How he plays football at lunch, has a girl he likes, and hates classes. Everything goes fine for about two months. Then the report cards come in. One in the mail that Eliot hands Nate one day, and another in his email inbox from Eliot's homeroom teacher who's worried about him. For good reason, but that's not the first thing Nate notices.

The report cards don't match.

The one Eliot handed him was average across the board. Cs and Bs, with a good attendance record and no notes. It's also made up by Hardison, Nate later learns, because Eliot asked him to and gave the kid a pack of gummy frogs. Not that Hardison would need the extra incentive to help his foster brother out. The real report card is failing. Literally failing three classes, almost failing another two, with terrible attendance and records of fights plus a few notes from the grade consoler. Eliot is, put simply, struggling with school and didn't want Nate to find out.

It takes a long conversation that Nate was pretty sure would end with a fight or Eliot walking out, but none of that happens and Nate is actually relieved when he sends Eliot upstairs without either of them yelling. Apparently, Eliot missed a lot of school with his last foster parents to deal with his own injuries or those of younger kids, and his schooling fell to the wayside. The teen is behind in math, history, and below his grade level for reading. Not that Nate is too worried. Eliot seemed to like school when he was there for the most part, though Sophie does insist on a private tutor until Eliot can catch up.

It's only a few short months later that Nate gets another email, though the report card and comments are much better and the way Eliot is slowly relaxing into their home speaks volumes to how the teen is adjusting.

[Line break]

"So you've got your kids each in a different school system?"

Nate doesn't look at Sterling, but he knows the man is giving him that weird raised eyebrow half smirk look. "Yup," he says, popping the P just because he knows Sterling hates it. "Different types of schooling for each one."

His friend raises the other eyebrow, now more of a surprised expression than the disbelieving one. "Wouldn't it be easier just to put them all in the same school?"

Nate thinks about it. Thinks about Parker, being forced into schedules with teachers and students alike whispering behind her back. Thinks of Hardison and how he could have run circles around most of his teachers in a regular system. Thinks of Eliot being crushed by the high work load and stern rules of a private school. Nate thinks about his children, each in their own niche and growing into wonderful people and shakes his head. "No Sterling, it wouldn't be easier." And Nate finishes his coffee before leaving Sterling in the small pub, planning to walk the short distance to his house. His home. His family.

Chapter Text

When Nate Ford wakes up, it's to a brightly lit room, a jackhammer going off at his temples, and a middle aged woman in a lab coat and fake smile watching him. His head swims, and he tries to remember what happened. Where he is.

"Good morning Mr. Ford. How'd you sleep?" The woman has a pleasant, calming sounding voice, and she looks down at a clipboard after Nate only blinks at her. "The weekend doctor made a note here and said you had another episode. Can you tell me what happened?"

Slowly the headache was leaving, and Nate frowned. Was this part of a con? A job? He couldn't remember. Hopefully the crew hadn't stuck him in rehab again, but the room didn't scream rehab. It was too much like a hospital room. Nate's skin tingled uneasily and he rubbed the goosebumps away on his arm. He had to remember the con. There had to be a job. "I don't remember. I think I just had too much to drink, though I'm usually very careful about that." He tried for a smile, but it felt off somehow. The uneasiness wasn't settling.

The woman looked at him for several moments before she sighed, lowering the clipboard and holding it in front of her. "Mr. Ford, you weren't drinking. This facility doesn't allow it, and you haven't left for almost six months."

Six months? That couldn't be right. Hardison probably made it look like that on records or something. "I snuck out." He had to keep her talking. Figure out what was going on. Too bad his com wasn't in. He could really use Sophie's help.

"We've been over this Nathan, there is no Sophie."

Started, Nate looked up at the doctor who only seemed patient. Apparently he'd been talking out loud. That wasn't a good sign. "How do you know Sophie?" The heavy feeling sank further into his bones, and Nate felt a strange sense of dejavu. Something was just outside his reach, but he needed it.

The doctor pulled a well worn manilla folder out from the clipboard, opening the cover and glancing at it while somehow always keeping her attention on Nate. It was unsettling, and familiar, and that in itself was unsettling to Nate. "Nathan Ford, age 51, Caucasian male, approximately six feet tall. Admitted to Oakville Hospital six months ago for depression, alcoholism, behaviour deemed dangerous to himself and others, and extreme psychosis."

She listed a few other things --medications, therapy-- but his mind got stuck on the last reason of admittance. Psychosis. Extreme at that. "I'm not crazy," he blurted out, his heart racing behind his ribs. He knew it was the truth, it had to be, but why did it taste so much like a lie on his tongue?

The doctor smiled at him again, that placating thing of plastic. "We don't like to use that word here, Mr. Ford. You know this."

Something was wrong. "I need to go. My team--" he stopped, his brain chatching up and realizing that if this was a con, he shouldn't mention the team.

"Ah, so that's what the episode was about." The doctor almost seemed relieved by that, and Nate's dread sank heavy and cold in his stomach. "Nathan, I need you to focus, alright? You don't have a team. You've been at Oakville Hospital six months. It's a Tuesday. September twenty-fourth, two thousand nine."

His head spun. "No. We just had a job. It was winter, and we've been together for years. We celebrated Christmas together in twenty ten." He had the memories. Parker had wore antlers with bells. Eliot cooked a ham. Sophie brought mistletoe and kissed everybody, much to Hardison's embarrassment and Parker's delight. He remembered it happening. But why was the memory fuzzy? Why couldn't he recall what Hardison's ugly Christmas sweater looked like?

Why did it taste like lies on his tongue?

"They're part of your delusions Nathan. Your mind makes up things dealing with these people. They aren't here. You were never a criminal, just confused." She said it like it was rehearsed. Like she'd said it before.

Nathan remembered her saying it before, the words echoing in his head. "No. They-- they're my family. They're real." Lies, bitter and burning. "I don't know you."

"Nathan you do know me. I've been your doctor for four months. We've had significant success with your treatment thus far. You are much more grounded in reality, and your episodes are fewer and farther between," she had a gentle smile on her face, like it was an accomplishment.

His stomach rolled and the uneasiness settled firmly in his mind as he recalled the hospital. The same conversation. Denial wasn't working. "I know them, Dr. Wright. They're real. We were..." He doesn't bother. Memories swirl through his mind. Sharp. Clear. Cutting. Real.

Eliot Spencer. A retrieval specialist Nate tracked down to Eastern Europe and set the local police force lose on. He'd had to ID the body, and the Polish police had him buried in an unmarked prison grave.

Alec Hardison. Twenty two year old hacker Nate found in a fancy hotel. Turned the boy over to the government, and he was either locked away with or buried for what he could do with computers.

Parker. Just Parker. A theif that was so young. Nate himself had put the cuffs on her, and watched as the crazy woman was stuffed into a cruiser, then a cell, then a box. Apparently she didn't do well in prison.

Sophie Devereaux. Lauren Williams. Katherine Clive. So many more names, but all one woman. She was the queen of grifters around the world. Both he and Sterling had chased her.

He remembers Paris. He shot her first, and they both went down.

He remembers San Lorenzo, them falling into bed together.

He remembers her pained faced.

Her face contorted in pleasure.

The way she gently touched the bullet wound in her chest.

Her fingers ghosting across the scar from her bullet in his shoulder.

He remembers that she didn't get up.

He remembers Maggie checking him into Oakville, after Sam died in front of him. After Sophie died in front of him. After getting Parker and Hardison and Eliot killed. After all the death got to be too much.

Nate remembers snapping, shattering, and taking refuge in his mind.

Doctor Wright sighs, makes a note in her clipboard about different medication, and leaves Nathan Ford alone with his tears.

Chapter Text

The Easter Chapter Job
-~=~-

Nathan Ford had resigned himself to having a family again, as loose as the definition could be used with a band of criminals. He and Sophie acted as parents to the younger trio when the time called for it, and since retirement clearly didn't work (they admitted that after the seventh con they pulled on their honeymoon) Nate and Sophie were back in Portland with their 'kids'. That meant family dinners at least twice a week. That meant movie night on Thursdays. That meant being there for important milestones and events.

(Apparently, birthdays had been an interesting topic when Nate had finally brought it up. Sophie wouldn't tell her real one, Hardison had never really celebrated, Parker had forgotten hers and just did Christmas, and Eliot had to admit lying about his when Hardison had baked a cake on the supposed day. But that's a different story, and Nate digresses.)

Being family meant holidays. That meant Easter. And, being the mastermind and pseudo-dad of the group, Nate planned everything. How he hid what he was doing from four of the world's supposedly best criminals bogled his mind, but he chose not to look a gift horse in the mouth when his family came in Easter morning. Sophie joined him on the couch, and he kissed his wife on the cheek as she settled in and the trio found their baskets.

"What is this?" Hardison had been the one to ask, but all three were looking at Nate with varying degrees of confusion.

Nate sipped his coffee, hiding a grin behind the mug and ignoring Sophie's equally questioning look. "Easter baskets."

The tiny crease deepened in Eliot's brow. "We're not kids. We don't need baskets," the man grumbled, though his eyes kept drifting back to the plain whicker basket with real green grass hiding the treasures underneath.

Nate set his coffee down and heaved a sigh, glad for Sophie's acting lessons and making to stand up. "Well if that's the case I'll just take them all back--"

"NO!" Parker practically shouted and lunged for her basket, tugging the thing close to her chest. Her's was a little smaller than Eliot's, but the basket was light blue plastic and heaping full of the fake candy grass stuff. Parker had the sugar stuff at the corner of her mouth, already sneaking the candy. "I want mine."

Hardison nodded along and grabbed his basket in a much less violent action, though his wasn't really a basket. More of a bucket, with tiny Star Wars chibis (as Nate had learned they were called) painted around the edges in an action scene. "Eliot wants his, he's just grumpy. Thanks for the baskets man. Haven't had one in years," the hacker commented, though his attention was already consumed by the shiny plastic grass and his long fingers poking through it.

Seeming like an unspoken cue, the kids all sat with their baskets and began riffling through them, Parker excitedly eating her candy grass and Eliot grumbling and Hardison just grinning. Parker was the first to find her goodies, a small sack of coins from around the world, a new lockpicking set with her initial on the case, a hairclip with a tiny blade, a purple tazer, enough variety chocolate to choke a horse, and everything to grow Venus flytrap flowers so Albert would have company. Nate barely understood the squeeling thanks she sent his way before she and all her new trinkets vanished.

Hardison was running his own steady commentary to himself and Nate smiled as the hacker got more and more excited with each gift. He'd been the hardest to get things for, but Nate wasn't just goning to get him mediocre things. So Hardison had gotten the early beta release of the wizard game he played, a fancy gamer mouse, something that looked like a phone but was really a signal jammer, all the Star Wars movies in a box set, and three tickets to the next San Diego comicon with backstage passes included. Based on the happy sounding rant coming from the man Nate figured he'd done a good job.

Unlike the others Eliot remained quiet and sorted carefully through his basket, but he was smiling in a way that translated from Eliot to 'i feel warm and soft'. At least that's what Parker had explained it as, and Parker seemed to be the best at speaking Eliot so Nate rolled with it. For the hitter he'd gone with less flashy things and gotten him a new set of knives, a dozen or so different types of farm fresh eggs (since Hardison and Parker both got chocolate eggs, but Nate didn't think Eliot would approve of the foil wrapped sweets), some hand wraps for boxing, several seed packets for herbs Nate knew the hitter didn't have already, and a note explaining there was now a nice yoga mat hiding in the closet along with a bonzi tree. Only after all the gifts were tucked away in the basket again did Eliot look up at Nate and smile his 'im sorry for being a grump' (again, that was the Parker translation) smile. "Thanks. The gifts are nice," he said, glancing out the door in the direction of the closet where his mat and tree were. Standing up, Eliot nudged Hardison's shoulder before glancing meaningfully between Nate and Sophie, and Nate couldn't help the chuckle when both men left the room in a poorly disguised hast.

At his side, Sophie finally pulled back enough to look him in the eyes. "I expect you to explain how exactly you kept this hidden from us," she said with a light smile, her teasing tone turning the 'us' into 'me'.

He kissed her in lieu of a real answer. "I'm the mastermind darling," he said, mimicking her tone perfectly only thanks to years of practice. "I don't need to explain myself." Reaching between the couch cushions he was sitting on, Nate removed a small wooden box and offered it to Sophie, cutting her protests short as she accepted. Her gasp and look of shocked awe as she opened it was worth all the discomfort and pain it cost getting her the gift.

"Is this--" Her fingers hovered over the tiny thing in the box, her eyes taking in every detail.

Nate sipped his now cold coffee, grinning. "Yup. Called in a couple favours. There's a very convincing fake in its place at the muesuem now." Sophie's eyes shot up to him in a look of disbelief and Nate shrugged. "I never did steal you the wedding ring, so-"

"So you decided to steal me one of the most famous Easter eggs in the world and one of Russia's finest pieces of art in their history?" She looked, as she would describe, like a smacked mackerel or something along that line. "You stole me a Peter Faberge Egg for a present?"

He smiled at her and leaned in for a kiss. "Happy Easter," he murmured against her lips, and smiled when she kissed him back hard.

Yeah, he could get used to the whole family thing.

Chapter Text

-Mossad Agent and Retrieval Specialist-
The leverage crew was doing a job near D.C., Nate and Sophie both back to make sure the dirty politician went down without anyone getting hurt. Hardison was in Lucille IV, chattering away to Parker and Eliot who were hiding in an air vent and lurking outside respectively. The voices of his teammates was a pleasant white noise in the back of his head, but Eliot wouldn't admit it if questioned. Over the six years they'd been together the group had gone from crew, to team, to family, and if he had to be honest Eliot didn't mind. He'd keep his promise to Sophie, no matter what.

Pacing down to the opposite corner of the block, Eliot kept his eyes open for anything that could be a threat. Their client claimed the politician had her brother killed, a navy guy working on some intelligence stuff that stumbled upon something that would ruin the politician's career. The goal was for Parker to steal the information and Hardison leak it publicly, while Sophie and Nate got the man's bank account and cleaned him out. Eliot was just back up, which he was perfectly fine with.

He started walking back around to the front of the building when Hardison's voice cut in. "Heads up people, NCIS team just got here. Damn that woman parks as bad as Parker," the hacker trailed off, and Eliot ignored Parker's indignant 'Hey!' as he started walking a little faster.

"How many?" He asked quietly, hoping there wouldn't be a fight. It was always a Bad Idea to fight cops, but Eliot wouldn't let his team get caught.

Hardison's answer came right as Eliot rounded the corner, but it was too late to do anything since Eliot came face to face with someone he hadn't seen in a very long time. "Miss David," he said, narrowing a glare at her but keeping things civil for the sake of the public around them.

"Spencer," she greeted just as coolly, crossing her arms. She looked just the same, besides the gun at her waist was US military issue and she had an NCIS badge clipped to her belt. Plus they weren't both covered in sand this time. "Didn't know you were in DC."

In his ear Eliot could hear Hardison and Parker questioning him about the con but he ignored them. He crossed his own arms and smirked. "Didn't know you were keepin' tabs on me."

She smiled as well, though it was anything but friendly. "I hadn't thought it necessary. Last I checked you were dead."

"Yeah, no thanks to you. Pretty sure the doctor left a piece of your bullet in me if you want it back," he shot back, rolling his shoulder at the memory and able to imagine the small shard embedded behind his collarbone. If he really wanted he could have a proper procedure done to remove it, but with the crew he didn't want to risk being out of commission. Speaking of. "What's NCIS doing here?"

She sends him a sharp look that Eliot is pretty sure is meant to be intimidating, and he's waiting for a snarky reply when a voice behind him says, "Our jobs." Eliot curses himself for not paying attention, looking over his shoulder at the silver haired man that screams ex-marine. The man's eyes don't break from Eliot's, but the hitter knows he isn't being addressed when he asks, "Friend of yours?"

"I'm not sure that's the word you'd use," David said, and Eliot could damn near hear her smirking.

"I was just leaving." Eliot flashes the man a smile, pitching his voice to catch the rest of the crew's attention and get them the hell out of there. David he could probably have handled, but the older guy has something in his eyes that sets Eliot's teeth on edge. "See ya round David," he says, finally tearing his eyes away from the man's to David's, nodding at the apparently ex-Mossad agent before walking away. He disappeared into the small crowd --crossing back on his path just to make sure no one was following him-- and joined the others at Lucille. Parker and Sophie were already back, with Nate taking a little longer to get out undetected, and Hardison was already tapping at his computers.

Nate's voice came over the coms, the background noises changing as he left the building. "Eliot is the job blown?"

It still shook Eliot a bit how much faith Nate and the others put in him. He tucked his hair behind his ears and shook his head no. "We aren't. But someone else is on the case, and we do not wanna mess around with them."

"Friend of yours?" Sophie asked, glancing from the passenger seat to the trio in the back.

Eliot thought about what David had said and remembered when they had ran into each other on one of his retrieval jobs. Honestly, if she had wanted to kill him she could have easily, but she had given him half a chance with shooting him in the shoulder. In his line of work that meant a hell of a lot more than he was willing to admit. "Don't know if that's the right word, but something like that."

-Trio of Soldiers-
The vacation in New York was just that. A family vacation of sorts, where the whole crew could just relax and enjoy themselves. Sophie seemed determined to shop the entire time, Hardison all but moved into the big Apple store, and Parker was having a blast in the ten stroy toy store or whatever. Nate was happily drinking in a seedy bar where nobody knew him, limiting himself to only a few drinks and savoring the whiskey.

His phone, of course, chose to ring right then.

Sighing heavily he put his glass down and flipped open the burner phone, answering with hopefully clear annoyance. "Hello?"

"Hey Nate."

Nate blinked, sitting up a little straighter at Eliot's voice. The hitter didn't sound hurt, but with Eliot one could never be sure. "Are you in a hospital?"

The nervous laugh coming from the other end of the line told Nate enough, and his curiousity only grew. "No. No hospital this time. Listen, Nate, I need a favor."

"Sure." Eliot never asked for anything, so even though Nate kept his voice on the edge of disinterested he would have agreed to move the moon for the hitter.

There was a shuffling sound on the phone and a resigned sigh. "I need you to bail me out of jail. And my friends." In the background, Nate heard someone --an officer he guessed-- yelling about time being up. Eliot rattled off an address, then right before hanging up added, "And if you could bring two of my shirts and my extra boots that'd be great."

The line went dead and Nate was left staring blankly at the bar top, wondering what exactly he'd gotten himself into.

It took a quick call to Hardison to figure out which alias Eliot had been booked under and a short stop at their hotel to grab the clothes, but within the hour Nate was waiting inside the New York City police station to pick up his 'son' and friends for a bar fight. Other than the fact none involved were seriously hurt and that they'd all gotten off on a warning, Nate knew nothing. Well, that and the fact that apparently the group was partially nude.

The door opened and Eliot was the first the exit, followed closely by a man who could have been Eliot's cousin and a blond man that matched Eliot and the stranger in build. Eliot and the blond were both shirtless, and the blond was also missing his shoes. The brunet was the only one who seemed relatively unaffected, but as soon as they saw Nate they all looked more like teenagers than grown men. Figuring that he needed to act in the role of disappointed father, Nate glared pointedly at Eliot and tossed him the bundle of clothes. "Get dressed, then go outside. I'll meet you at the car. All of you." The two men glanced at Eliot and Nate before playing along, and after that it was a simple con to make the police believe their story.

Outside Nate found the three men dressed and clustered around his car, talking quietly. Clearly they knew each other well; the blond had an arm around the others' shoulders and neither man looked uncomfortable at the gesture. Nate stopped a few feet away and put his hands in his pockets, just watching for a moment before clearing his throat. The young men stopped murmuring to themselves and looked over, and Nate raised an eyebrow questioningly. "So, anyone want to explain what happened?"

The trio shifted, three pairs of blue eyes flickering between themselves to hold a silent conversation before settling on Nate's own. Eliot cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck in a sheepish gesture before putting on his 'aw shucks, looky there' southern boy grin that hadn't ever worked on Nate. "It ain't no big deal. We were just enjoying a drink at a dive bar, then some goons decided to be mean to a lady and, well, we decided the right coarse of action was to politely ask them to stop," Eliot said, somehow keeping a straight face the entirety of his explanation.

His blond friend snorted, arms still around the others. "Yeah, if you mean politely asking them to stop by punching them in the face."

"And throwin' a bottle at their heads," the brunet added. Eliot threw glares at both of them, the blond chuckling and the other simply raising a questioning eye at the hitter. "What? I woulda thrown the chair."

Nate could guess for himself how the rest of the story continued, and sighed while trying vainly to stave off a migraine. "Of course you'd get in a bar brawl over a woman's dignity. Now where do I need to drop you two off?" He looked up at Eliot's two friends, noticing the way they started shifting again. "Can I ask how you three know each other?"

Nate got three answers, all at the same instant.

"Old buddies." Eliot.

"Classified." The serious looking brunet.

"Playing in the sandbox." The grinning (smirking?) blond. The two bigger men glanced at him, and he blinked. "What? It's true as your answers."

Again, Nate could put two and two (or one and one and one, in this case) together, and came to what he guessed was a very safe assumption that if he hurt Eliot the other two could and would successfully disappear him. "Do you two need a ride somewhere?" He asked instead, figuring that they'd give him a wrong address if he insist he drove.

"We're good," the brunet cut in quickly, cutting off whatever the blond man was about to say with a hand over his mouth. A metal hand, now that Nate could see it from under the shirt sleeve. Huh. "Thanks for the offer though Mr. Ford."

The blond shook himself free with a twist and spin, somehow ending up behind and on the other side of the brunet, and grinned. "Yeah. And for the bail. Pretty sure Steve woulda killed us if we called him. Again." He laughed, and avoided a headlock with another slightly impressive spinning move. "See you around again Eliot. Don't be afraid to call!" With a final wave, the two walked off, the brunet with his hands in his pockets and the blond damn near tripping himself on air halfway down the block.

Eliot was already getting into the driver side of the car, so Nate took the passenger side and let silence fill the space between them until they were almost to the hotel. "Friends?" Nate finally asked, glancing at his hitter. Eliot shrugged, though there was a smile on his lips and he took off from the light faster than needed.

Three weeks later, after watching the Avengers take down a small (read: large) army of robots on the news, he would recognize the faces of the Winter Soldier and Hawkeye, and wonder how the hell no one had gotten hurt in that bar fight.

-Three Conning Thieves, Two Hunting Brothers, And a Demon in a Sterling Suit-
When Sterling burst into the Brewpub, literally having the doors fly violently open, Parker dove behind the bar and drug Hardison with her. Not surprisingly Eliot stood his ground, finished wiping his hands with the towel at his waist before leaning against the table behind him. "Crowley," he said, politely, which Parker thought was weird because that was clearly Evil-Nate. Then his eyes turned solid red in a super very creepy way, and Parker decided he was probably not Evil-Nate, but probably still Evil. Capital letter and all.

"Mr. Stone," Evil-but-not-Evil-Nate said, and Parker glanced over at Eliot to make sure his eyes didn't turned red or purple or anything. They didn't, and Parker wondered what the funny names were about for all of two beats before Not-Sterling started talking again. "You seem to be alive, despite all odds. If I remember correctly one of my people should have been pocketing your soul a few weeks ago."

"And if I remember correctly, the fella with the red eyes agreed to take me personally. Deals a deal and all that, he held true to his word. Shame you went an' killed him," Eliot drawled, looking smugger than a pickpocket with a new wallet.

The Evil dude glared and pointed a stubby finger at Eliot. "You broke a contract."

Eliot's grin widened and he leaned forward, arms crossed against his chest in a relaxed position as he spoke each word carefully. "He broke our contract. You didn't read the fine print, Mr. King of the Damned."

"So what? You conned me? Thought you could beat me at my own game?" The man looked like he'd just had his money stolen, and Parker resisted laughing as Eliot just shrugged. "You're a mad little mud monkey."

With a sigh, Eliot stood up straight and put on his Scary Face. "Read the contract again. I've got a copy I kept, so I'll know if you try and change it. Until the moment you can come back and show me wrong, get the hell out of my bar. Good night, sir," he said, tacking on the last bit and giving a slight bow of his head at the now red faced man.

The man pointed a finger at Eliot again, jabbing the air in front if him and snapping, "I will be back for you." Between one blink and the next, the man had vanished without a noise and Parker was left staring at a mostly empty Brewpub.

Eliot sighed again, dropping his shoulders and pulling an old flip phone from his pocket. He had the thing ringing and to his ear already when Hardison spoke up, his voice shaking as he asked, "What the hell was that?"

"Nothing you gotta worry about," Eliot grumbled, glancing at them and over them quickly in a way Parker knew was to make sure they weren't hurt.

Parker got up and sat on the bar top in one smooth move, swinging her feet over the side. "Who you calling?"

Eliot watched her for a second, the same checking stare he seemed to like pulling, before breaking eye contact. "Some friends," he said shortly. The other line must have picked up, because their hitter turned away like that would stop Parker from hearing. "Dean? Yeah, it's Eliot. Just letting you guys know Crowley has a cat up his ass if you run into him and wondering if you have some stronger warding. ... Yeah. He showed up at the Brewpub."

-Cop, Robber, and Two Meddling (basically) Mobsters-
They'd moved again. Sometime after Nate and Sophie's failed attempt at being retired Leverage International set up their main HQ in D.C., leaving the Portland Brewpub for Mr. Quinn and Archie to base out of.

Nate liked D.C. and hated it in equal measures. There was a harbor near by their new set up where he could keep his and Sophie's boat, there was shopping, plenty of job opportunities, lots of people to help, all that good stuff. Down side? Lots and lots of both law enforcement and mafia members. Two groups Nate typically avoided interacting with.

And yet, there he was, sitting next to one David Rossi who --despite claims otherwise-- was definitely connected to some family and very much a glorified cop. But he was also a friend, and on that night a fellow spy as the two older men snuck glances across the busy bar/restaurant to a small table tucked away in the back where a couple sat in blissful ignorance.

"How much you want to bet they talk shampoo use at least once tonight?" Nate snorted quietly into his glass of scotch, glancing over at Rossi and grinning as the man shrugged. "I'm jealous of their hair a bit. Though your Spencer should really let it out of that pony tail."

Nate nodded as he glanced back to the table. Eliot wasn't actually there as himself, instead taking on the College Proffesor get up with the useless glasses and hair tied back. A clean cut look for the setting, and matching his date's sweater vest look. "Yours knows who and what exactly Eliot is, right?"

The Italian swirled his glass and made a point of not looking at the table as Eliot's eyes scanned the room for what must have been the fifteenth time. "Of course. The kid's too trusting though, hence my presence. No offense to your boy or anything," he said, though by his tone Nate could tell the line was just shy of a lie. Not that he could blame the man. It was basically the same reason Nate himself had skulked around behind Eliot all through his date.

"None taken," he replied smoothly, and silence settled between the two as they watched the date progress. "An anonymous parton has already paid their bill," he tossed out, glancing at Rossi and noting his smile.

"And someone seems to have gifted the couple a lovely vintage," he said. Both men smiled and Rossi finished his drink, settling the empty tumbler on the bar with a solid tap. "I look forward to when they introduce each other to the families."

Nate groaned and tossed back the rest of his own drink, savoring the slight burn. "Don't remind me. I don't want that headache settling in too soon."

Rossi laughed, the bastard, and left without another word. Nate stayed long enough to see the waiter deliver the bottle of wine, the already paid check, and two pieces of cheesecake Rossi and he both agreed would to well with the bottle. Smiling and sending a silent prayer up that the evening would go well without his continued hovering, Nate followed Rossi's lead and left the two Spencers to their date.

-Bells-
Two years later, in Rossi's backyard and after the ceremonies are over, Sophie wanders about with a glass of fine champagne and looks at all the guests milling about. The entire FBI team was there of course, with their family and all glowing in the shared joy of their youngest member, along with a few members of an NCIS team. Towards the back Sophie spotted three men dressed in jeans and jackets --well, one was in a suit and trench coat-- and a trio of people her eyes had to be mistaking as Avengers. After all, why would the Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Winter Soldier show up to a backyard wedding?

As if called by the thought Eliot came over to her, grinning and looking as dashing as ever in an all black tux. "There's so many people here today," she commented after being released from his greeting hug. "I didn't know you had this many friends," she teased, very pleased at the bashful grin.

"Honestly, neither did I," Eliot admitted, and Sophie couldn't recall a time when the hitter had looked or sounded any happier.

Chapter Text

It was the best speech he'd ever written. It had to be, since he wrote it for the best man he'd ever known. In it Rossi had poured all the love from his heart into the words. Fit in the joke of their first meeting and the punchline of what came after. Puzzled together every story that needed told. Slipped in every monumental small moment. In that speech, Rossi made sure to convey how brave the man he loved was. How graceful despite how gangly and uncoordinated he seemed. In his own opinion, Rossi had written the best damn speech in the history of all speeches for his wedding.

Glass of scotch in hand, Rossi glanced down at one of the leftover invitations on the table. Join us for the union of Dr. Reid and Mr. Rossi, the elegant scrawl proclaimed, followed by a date not two weeks from then. An event that wouldn't happen two weeks from then. An event that would never happen. A drunk driver had taken the option of marriage when they had taken Reid's life.

Tears in his eyes, Rossi downed the rest of his scotch and took up a pen. Painfully, he changed "is" to "was".

Spencer Reid is was the best man I've ever know.

Chapter Text

The first time Jonah comes he carries a trash bag. It's mid summer and he only stays two weeks, hiding behind a snarky persona as his case worker rushes to find a more permanent placement. After the door closes on Jonah's retreating figure, Eliot tells Nate it's the kids first time in the system. His dad ODed, but they're giving him back to his mom. Eliot isn't exactly ok with it, but that's how things work. Nate is furoius, wants to yell and take Jonah back. He doesn't tell Sophie, because she would.

(Sophie gets upset when Eliot says he lost his backpack, but Nate doesn't mention it and buys six. They're on sale, he reasons, and stashes five in the hall closet.)

Colin Mason is there for three months. He's like Parker was, bounching from home to home, and they try. Nate really, really tries, but after Hardison's computer goes missing and Parker admits the new boy said gross things to her, Colin has to go. His case worker doesn't even look surprised when she comes to pick the twelve year old up and he just yells curses at the family. Nasty insults and crude words that make Sophie round the children up and into the house. Nate stays, and watches the car drive away.

(Parker tells him about all the houses she went to. How some were so good in the beginning, but she was so mad, and nothing could have been good enough. How sometimes the mad never went away. She hugs him, tells him how he helped the mad go away forever, and he hides his tears from her and smiles.)

Peggy stays almost a year and a half, her parents in a custody battle. Her mother claims her father is abusive, which Peggy denies in a way that makes Nate actually believe her, but there's not a whole lot they can do. The state puts her in temporary placement with the Ford's. She's a sweet child, a very normal ten year old, and Parker makes it her mission to be friends with her foster sister. Sophie laughs off Nate's worry. After all, what trouble can two little girls really cause?

(Ten months later, when Nate is told to do some yard work by Sophie, he opens the shed to find a literal hoard of cats and kittens. There's eleven, he learns, all with names and all very well fed. It takes several weeks to find them all homes. Nate and Sophie start keeping a closer eye on the girls when they huddle for 'Girl Talk', and Eliot is told to ignore their bribery and big eyes in the future.)

Jonah shows up again, stays four weeks, and is gone. Nate isn't sure how to help Eliot when he goes quiet, but gives the boy his space and an offer to always listen.

(When Hardison mentions that Eliot is trying to learn how to use a computer, like email and facebook, Nate keeps it in mind. When Christmas comes a few weeks later and Eliot opens a new laptop, Nate says it's for school. If he sees Eliot on it late, video chatting with a vioce that sounds familiar, Nate doesn't mention it.)

Mikel is only there nine days. Her parents died suddenly in an accident, and since no immediate family was found she stayed with the Ford's as a caseworker scrambled to find something else. She's older than the other girls, and quiet. Sophie tries to comfort the girl but is met with firm resistance each time. When they're informed she's going to go to her aunt, Nate feels relief that at least there was someone. They all say goodbye at the door when she goes. Eliot blushes when Mikel hugs him, but he hugs her back and ignores Hardison's heckling.

(Nate doesn't mention how he'd heard noises in the backyard the night before, and gone down to see the two teens fighting in the grass. He'd only stopped himself from opening the door when he'd heard the laughter, and seen how the punches were really taps, kicks barely brushing. It goes on, and Nate leaves the two to their violent looking dance.)

When Peggy has to leave, there are tears from almost everyone. Hugs for everyone. It's not all sad. Her dad finally won custody, and he's a good man. Nate believes the now twelve year old when she says it, and hugs her tight. Parker smiles and waves and makes Peggy promise to call. Peggy promises and laughs and says she could mever forget her sister.

(Parker hugs Nate that night when he's washing dishes. She doesn't say anything, but he sees her smile and the tear tracks down her cheeks and knows that they'll always have another daughter, even if she doesnt live there.)

Jonah comes back. He's got a backpack on that has Eliot's name faded on it, a black eye, busted lip, and enough pain in his eyes to last a lifetime. Eliot wastes no time and leads to boy up to his room, where an extra twin bed has been since his first stay two and a half years ago. The social worker is a woman named Tara, who looks into Nate's eyes and tells him exactly what kind of Hell she just pulled Jonah out of. Makes him swear to keep the boy away from anything like that. It's one of the easiest promises Nate ever makes.

(A long while later, after both boys graduate high school, Nate wakes up to the sound of hushed whispers and shuffling feet. By the time he gets up both Eliot and Jonah are down the stairs and almost out the door. He knows what they're doing, remembers all the times Eliot talked about the army, all the times Jonah mentioned recruiters, and doesn't stop them. He watches them leave, backpacks over their shoulders, and smiles. Both bags have Eliot's name on them, a single line of black marker crossing the name out. Printed below are their last names, different but no less brothers. Spencer and Quinn. Nate may not be able to watch them now, but he knows they have each other, and goes back to bed.)

Chapter Text

"Why do you do it?" Clint asked, kneeling down to check a snare. He looked at Bucky as he stood, blue eyes clear and open. "The knight stuff. Monster hunting or whatever," he explained waving his hand in a vague circle that had Bucky smiling despite the question. In the few span that he and Steven had been traveling around the area, Bucky had grown quite close to the quiet, near-hermit ranger man.

He fell in step as Clint began walking again, only glancing at the other man briefly before turning his attention forward. "What else would I do? It's all we were raised to do." At the soft hum of confusion, Bucky continued. "Me and Steve. The orphanage we met in trained all able bodied children to fight against the dragons. My parents had been killed when our city was attacked. So was Steve's mom, and his dad had been a knight way back before. Training was the only thing that made sense. To take out the evil that had shaped us." He reached up, pulling a small shield emblem off his tunic and showing it to Clint. It was a close miniature of his official court uniform, a snake like dragon in bold red against darkened silver. The symbol of a Dragon Slayer. "Steve has one too, in different colors," he said gently, watching Clint's calloused fingers trace over the swirling shape of the beast. "This is who we are, a product of war."

After a few seconds Clint pulled his hand away and began leading them towards a clearing at the edge of a bluff. "Why though? Why not stop fighting?"

Oh poor, innocent, naive Clint. "Dragons are sick creatures. They're born without souls or the ability the feel anything other than rage towards other things. Rage and a need to claim as much as they can, destroy what they can't." Bucky followed, watching Clint take a few almost pacing steps close to the bluff's edge. He tried a softer approach. "It's a mercy, to put them down. We're saving them from themselves."

"What?" Clint stopped his slow wander to look at Bucky, and the knight felt a small smile at the thought of getting through to the other man.

"Maybe the dragon needs saving. That's what I'm here for. To save it from itself."

Clint turned his back to Bucky, looking out across the small cluster of buildings below them and at the decrepit castle across the valley. The sun was just beginning to sink into the trees of the mountains and caught in Clint's hair, making him seem to glow, and Bucky wondered how long the moment would last. If they'd be lucky enough to end up suspended for forever with the evening warmth and hush quiet of insects singing. But Clint sighed, straightened his shoulders, and began to speak. Recite, really, a short little rhyme for children. His voice rumbled over the words. Resonated like distant thunder. Like something else that pricked at the back of Bucky's neck.

Smell the burning sulfur ire.
Hear the roar that heralds danger.
See the dragon breathing fire,
Feel the smolder of its anger.
Hide inside while you still have breath
For the monster's shadow means mortal death.

The sun sank lower, chilling the air as the mountains' shadows grew and swallowed the forests, casting the village and estate below the pair into quickly growing darkness. Clint turned back to face Bucky. His normally bright blue eyes had darkened with the sunset and seemed to smolder dimly red. Bucky took a step back, hand instinctively going for his sword before remembering he'd left it behind. Panic clawed at his throat as Barton stepped-- no, stalked, forward. Bucky was suddenly very aware of his situation. Barton might have been considered dangerous before, but this was different. This was no huntsman in the woods, a ranger with a bow or snare. No, Bucky thought, stopping as his back meet a tree and Barton's eyes flickered like a hungry fire. No, this was no mere huntsman before him.

A hand pressed against his chest and Bucky felt his pulse race against points too sharp to be human fingers. He dared not look though. Couldn't break away from the inferno unfurling in Barton's eyes. The ease that the other held himself was at odds with the clumsy man in the village. Even the graceful hunter. The thing before him, wearing a human face and coiled with untapped power, was a predator unlike any Bucky had seen.

"Tell me," the beast snapped like popping embers. "Good Sir Knight Buchanan, Red Dragon Slayer Winter, what do you know of dragons? Of these monsters you seek so eagerly?" It leaned forward. In the fading twilight Bucky could make out sharp horns around the eyes, pointed teeth that sneered at his silence. Lightening burned in its eyes and thunder growled in its voice. "I am the dragon breathing fire. The so called monster in the night. Hear me when I tell you to leave. That you are not the mercy or redemption I need." Something changed and the beast stepped back, claws falling away from Bucky's heart. He dragged in a breath, watching the monster watch him. He'd never felt smaller, even fighting against full size dragons a hundred times his size.

"Tell me," the voice was closer to normal, and Bucky blinked and could see Barton through the fading light. He stood away, a few steps from the edge of the cliff, eyes burning into Bucky. "Tell me, Bucky, what mercy you could offer me. What sort of monster only becomes enraged when provoked. Which of us has more innocent blood on our hands. And, one last question, yeah?" It smiled at him, Barton smiled, all sad and tired and worn like the man had so often seemed. Bucky only swallowed as the creature took a step back

"I am the dragon, you the knight. Ask yourself, Bucky, are monsters born or created?"

It took another step, and suddenly Barton was plummeting out into the darkness. Some instinct drove Bucky to push off the tree, race to the edge. He was just in time to see a shadow morph, grow, and rise above the darkened valley. A sharp silhouette of massive wings took to the dark blue sky, then vanished.

Alone on the ridge, Bucky stared out long enough for the stars to all settle in, and only when he thought he saw a familiar shadow passing over the moon did he crumple under the weight of the blood on his soul.