Why Do You Stay

Title: Why Do You Stay
Fandom: Leverage
Pairings: Nathan Ford/Eliot Spencer
Rating: PG-15
Word Count: 5,954
Summary: Comment fic prompt: It’s your call.

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Chapter 1

Nate stood in the doorway of what had once been the parlor when the Victorian mansion was in its heyday. He observed the two dark heads bent over a handful of papers.

“No, Sophie.” Eliot’s voice was firm. “I don’t care about the ambiance or the spirit of the house. The front is the easiest to access. I,” he pointed to himself for emphasis, “need to be up here. The rest of you need to be in the back or upstairs.”

“But Eliot,” Sophie voice dropped into that nasally begging voice she used when she wanted something, “this room was made to be a woman’s office. We need someone a little more social when client’s come to the door.”

“What are ya gonna do if some crew like Sterling’s or worse come through the door?” His expression stony. “How you gonna buy time for the rest to get away?” “Besides I can be sociable.” His frown deepened as he as he waited for her answer.

Nate knew the Eliot was aware of his presence. Had been since he approached the door. He knew the specialist was waiting for him to interrupt, let Sophie have her way, but Nate kept silent, letting them hash it out. Last time he backed Sophie’s play, Eliot, Parker, and Hardison paid the price then they had to blow up their lives.

Out of all of them, he thought Sophie would be the one to say they were better off scattered. She acted as though everything was fine, but he’d seen doubt cross her face when something reminded her what her actions had wrought.

Even after they agreed to stay together, and moved to Portland, it was back to square one. Nate watched them dance around the grifter, always watching out the corner of their eye at the brunette. Parker and Hardison had finally begun to relax, but Eliot was back to circling from the fringe. Nate was always surprised and relieved when the hitter appeared.

The debacle with the two David’s had changed them. Hardison’s change was the most noticeable. As a hacker, the physical aspects of their cons had seldom touched the young man it was mostly a virtual game. Now, he was more real and less virtual. His worldview had been greatly altered, and if not for the grounding effects of Parker and Eliot, Nate’s not sure how those pieces would have come back together.

Parker was still Parker. Her focus was the present. That was how she survived her years in the foster system, and how she survived now. She sometimes used Eliot as a shield when she was uncertain otherwise she was just as unpredictable as always.

His own feelings for Sophie had cooled considerably after their argument when he realized she was conning them. He had thought about shutting down the con, but he had kept her secret for the sake of his revenge.

When she’d slapped him in the storage locker, it wasn’t because she was insulted, it was to provoke him, to try and justify her reasons for running a con on people who trusted her. For the first time in her career, Sophie Devereaux misread her mark.

Her being wrong was devastating. She’d based her plan on the man Nate was before his son died, not the man he was now. She didn’t want to know the man he is today, she wanted to change him back to the Nate she played an elaborate game of cat and mouse with across Europe.

She was wrong in that Nate didn’t look down at his crew because they were thieves. Just the opposite, he admired them for having the courage to overcome their pasts and work together. The fact that they sometimes made copious amounts of money along the way didn’t hurt either.

He carried his share of guilt for not telling the others that Sophie was using them. He felt guilt when he recalled the marks on Eliot’s face, Hardison’s head, Eliot holding his ribs, Parker’s fear.

He’d disregarded what he knew could happen. He should have anticipated Sterling slinking out of his swamp. That was his job, to foresee possible pitfalls. His unspoken penance was relinquishing a good part of his control over the group. He still picked the jobs, but the planning was more a team effort, than him laying out the con and them implementing it.

He brought all the pieces together, smoothing the edges so the individual pieces fit seamlessly. He tasked Eliot to ramrod Parker while he kept an eye and ear on Sophie and Alec.

Things came to a head between him and Sophie one evening soon after they’d found the mansion. After a long day helping Eliot and Hardison install security systems, phone jacks, and assorted gadgets that had to be done before they moved in the furniture, Nathan sprawled in a chair on the porch with his first scotch of the day.

He’d been setting small goals for himself each day. So far he’d been successful meeting those goals. Some of the work around the old Victorian required exact measurements and use of power tools, neither of which mixed well with alcohol, so he tried to limit himself to after they were done work for the day.

He was still savoring the burn of that first sip, when Sophie came out, saw the glass, and started taking a strip out of his hide. Things had gotten pretty loud when the screen door slammed. Startled they turn to see Eliot standing with his arms crossed over his chest.

“Ya’ll done entertain’ the neighbors, yet?” He spoke in his quiet drawl. “Sophie, sweetie, you’re startin’ to sound like Kate.”

“Nate, you’re sounding more like the village idiot than the black king.” With a smirk, the hitter continued to his pickup while the pair in question gaped like fish.

“Kate?” She looked after the retreating figure.

Taming of the Shrew. Probably the shrew part.” Nate quipped, grinning into his glass. Eliot never ceased to surprise him.

They looked sheepishly at each other. “This is never going to work…is it?” Sophie asked pointedly.

“Maybe if we were the same people we were three years ago, or we both didn’t feel guilty for what happened in LA.” Nate answered solemnly taking another small sip.

“I’ll never stop caring about you.” She reached out to take his hand.

“As much as I hate sounding cliché, I think we do better as friends.” He placed a kiss on her knuckles. “I care for you, Sophie, just not like you want. I don’t know if I have that in me anymore.”

“I hope you do, Nate. I really just want us to all have what we need…want. I know I hurt everyone with what I did. Some more than others.” She looked to where Eliot had disappeared.

They settled back in their chairs enjoying the approaching twilight. Each lost in their thoughts when Sophie broke the silence.

“Think he’ll ever forgive me.” She asked quietly.

“He already forgave you,” Nate eyed the brunette over the top of his glass, “he just won’t forget. He’ll pull it out from time to time to remind himself what happens when you get too close.”

He set his glass on the railing. “The saddest thing about what you did…we did…it doesn’t just affect how he treats you it affects how he treats everyone. He’ll be with us, but part of him has a foot pointed toward the door. He still treats Parker and Hardison like annoying siblings, but you won’t often get to see the real Eliot Spencer. You’ll only get Eliot Spencer, retrieval specialist.”

Before she could comment, the silver Chevy was back. Eliot came toward the house with groceries and take-out.

‘I’m not gonna be seein’ ya’ll on YouTube later, am I?” They just shook their heads at the younger man. “Food’s here, come on.”

Nate placed a hand on the grifter’s arm. “I played my part, too. I could have told them what I suspected. I had my eye on taking out Blackpoole, and I lost sight of the collateral damage. You weren’t the only one that lost that day.”

Everyone was getting settled, and the office was coming together. The big Victorian became a hybrid between office and living quarters. There were enough rooms on the lower floor for everyone to stake out their own space without being crowded.

Eliot and Parker took the rooms on either side of the foyer. What had been the formal parlor and ladies’ sitting room. Nate got the library, Sophie, what might have been a music room. Hardison took the living room, making it an office/conference room. Instead of a wall of screens, there were white boards, and a plasma TV. The dining room became a communal area with another plasma TV and couches, the kitchen and breakfast nook left as such. The butler’s pantry had been outfitted with enough medical supplies to service a small clinic. The bedrooms were outfitted in case someone wanted to stay the night.

Instead of getting an apartment, Nate moved into the master suite. Hardison’s server was in the basement. Eliot and Parker scattered hidden, nasty surprises all through the old mansion.

The most unusual development was Eliot remodeling the attic. When he was finished, the windows and hardwood floors shone. Freshly painted walls reflected the simplicity of the Mission furniture and plush area rug.

Eliot and Parker were out doing reconnaissance for their next job. Nate, Sophie and Alec were going over the players looking for weaknesses they could exploit.

“Don’t you think it’s odd?” Sophie threw out to the room.

The two men looked at her, confused. “What’s odd?” Nate asked, mind still on the case.

“Eliot’s room. It could be anyone’s room. There’s nothing about the space that says ‘Eliot’.” She observed.

The men looked at the grifter, then at each other. Then stood and headed toward the kitchen.

“What?” She looked incredulous, then followed.

Hardison grabbed his soda, paused and looked at Sophie.

“I know I wouldn’t keep anything I cared about in a place I might have to blow up some day.” He ducked his head and left.

“What?” She looked at Nate with disbelief. “I thought they were over that.”

“You asked a question. The man answered you.” Nate continued to sip his coffee as he watched the brunette leave in a huff.

Finishing up the files, Nate reflected on their lives since they settled. Sophie was getting heavily involved in the local theater and auditioning for roles when TV and movie productions came to town from LA.

Parker and Hardison were taking their first tentative steps toward a relationship. The movement glacial slow, neither exactly sure what they were doing. Both peppered Nate, Eliot, and even Sophie with questions.

One morning, Nate had walked in on a grinning Parker and a red faced Eliot. Nate felt a flair of ‘something’ when he saw them, but Eliot had escaped out the back door when Parker turned to him. That evening when they sat down to supper, Nate asked Eliot about it. He was amazed when a blush crept over the rugged face.

“She wanted to know it she got a costume like the characters in World of Warcraft, would Hardison quit draggin’ his feet and have sex with her.” The blush deepened. Eliot kept his eyes on his plate.

Nate choked on the piece of chicken he’d just swallowed. “Does she always ask stuff like that?”

“I think it’s become a game to see which one can annoy me the most.” He growled as he carried his plate to the sink. His back to Nate, he stared into the back yard. “I mean…what’da I know about havin’ a relationship. The closest I ever came was Aimee, and we all know how that worked out.”

Nate felt a tug to his heart as he watched the retrievalist retreat to the carriage house at the back of the property. The building had been converted into a garage, and had become a sanctuary for Eliot where he allowed Nate’s little red Tesla to live.

When he’d realized the specialist was going to be sharing the mansion with him, Nate had had his doubts, but Eliot was a good companion. If he cooked, Nate cleared up. They’d watch TV, read, Eliot would occasionally spend time on his computer, after which he sometimes disappeared for a day or two after. He’d return to the house mostly okay, but sometimes beat up and exhausted. When Nate would question him, he’d just glare and sequester himself in the attic.

Sometimes it was chess. It irritated Nate that Eliot would watch the game and play at the same time. Neither game seemed to command his full attention. Those were usually the nights Nate lost, because he was distracted by Eliot being distracting. He could not seem to get his head around Eliot’s strategies. Maybe that was why he’d never come close when he chased Eliot. When asked, Eliot just smirked and shrugged.

He hadn’t put much thought into his own life since LA until Sophie made a comment one day about living with Eliot must agree with him for he was looking better than he had for awhile. Nate just stared after the grifter as she flitted from the room.

A few evenings later, Eliot was putting the chess pieces away after their game. Nate reached out and laid a hand on top the scarred knuckles. Blue/grey eyes looked up.

“Are you my rehab, Eliot? Are you here to control my drinking?” Nate asked quietly.

Dark brows drew into a scowl. “How would I do that, Nate. Told you I ain’t your daddy. Not up to me to stop ya from whatever it is you wanna do.” He shook off the hand and continued to put away the game board.

When he finished, he turned back to Nate. “Ever think you’re controllin’ it. That maybe it don’t hurt so much anymore, so you don’t need all that liquid anesthesia? That the wounds from losin’ Sam and Maggie are healin’?”

Nate looked at the glass in his hand. It was only the third drink he had today. He thought back on the past few weeks. His drinking had become erratic. Some nights the bottle would be half to two thirds empty when he crawled into bed. Other nights he’d only have a shot or two. Usually, when he was doing something with Eliot. The man’s mind was sharp and Nate found the more sober he was the better he held his own with the hitter.

He was brought out of his reverie when Eliot brushed by him.

“Think I’ll call it a night. Gotta a lot to do tomorrow before we start our run at the mark.” He headed toward the back stairs.

Nate grabbed his arm, causing the specialist to spin into a defensive stance. Lost in his own head, Nate didn’t notice his peril.

“What?” He growled, taking a breath to settle himself. It was only Nate.

“Why do you stay, Eliot?” Nate asked again.

“Damn if you ain’t worse than Parker with the questions.” He wrapped a calloused hand around the back of Nathan’s neck and pulled him forward until full lips covered Nate’s in a sensual kiss.

Nate parted his lips when he gasped, and Eliot deepened the kiss, exploring the smoky essence of the scotch Nate just swallowed.

After what seemed like forever, or at least a week or two, Eliot broke the kiss and stepped back.

“You’re why I’m here, ya damn fool.” The shorter man pulled him in for another kiss only slightly less erotic than the last before heading up the back stairs towards the attic.

“Eliot?” Was the only word Nate’s addled brain would allow past kiss swollen lips.

The younger man paused on the stairs.

“It don’t have to mean anything, Nate, or maybe it could mean a lot.” Stormy eyes met his. “It’s your call.”

Nate watched Eliot disappear up the stairs.

Chapter 2

Before Nate could give thought to how he felt about Eliot’s kiss, they were neck deep in their next job.

Josiah (call me Jos) Holder is the owner, along with his children, Charles and Evelyn, of a mid-sized logging operation in Eugene, Oregon. Shortly after his wife died, Alllpoints Logging, a large corporate operation came to Jos with an offer to buy him out. When he refused, machinery was sabotaged, details of leases were leaked and they were undercut on bids. Events meant to force the Holders toward selling their company.

Josiah had come to Leverage Consulting to find out who in his company was working for Allpoints and see if they could find anything that would make the corporate nuisance back off.

Eliot, Hardison and Parker would be doing the heavy lifting on this job. They were going in as a team of corporate troubleshooters. Eliot would handle investigating the sabotage at the job sites and the wood yard, while Hardison and Parker would be IT and a forensic accountant, giving them legitimate reasons to be nosing around the offices and computers.

Sophie and Nate would work in the background, trolling for rumors about Holder and Allpoints. They were not going to tell Jos’ children, Charles and Evelyn, or anyone at the company what they were doing. Nate told Jos it was a safety issue, that the fewer people who knew the better for his team.

Not happy that he did not have an active role in the job was causing Nate to act surly. The morning the three youngest were to leave for Eugene, Eliot pulled Nate to the side.

“What is it Eliot, we need to get on the road.” Nate snapped.

He shut the ex-investigator up by simply grabbing the scruff of neck and engaging him in a breath stealing kiss.

“Just because you don’t git to be in the thick of things don’t mean you gotta go ‘round like a stepped on rattler.” Eliot growled. “If one of us needs you as back up, I expect you to be functioning. If I’m out in the woods I can’t keep an eye on Hardison and Parker.”

He laid callused fingertips against Nate’s lips. “I know Parker can handle herself, and probably protect Hardison too, but I’ll feel better if you’re on your A game, and not fightin’ with Sophie about your drinkin’.”

Nate gave him a solemn nod and Eliot rewarded him with another kiss.

“You know, Eliot, I’m on to what you’re doing with this giving me these pieces of yourself for good behavior.” Nate rambled smugly.

A dark eyebrow arched as if to say ‘Oh yeah?’ “You think I’d whore myself to keep you off the booze?” Eliot growled. “Fuck you.”

“I know how you … All of you think.” Nate chided.

Eliot gave him a nasty smirk. “Sterling thought he knew me, too. Wonder what ever happened to Quinn?”

The hitter’s eyes were empty. ”I don’t play. I need you in control. If you’re not in control you can’t watch out for Parker and Hardison. I’ll take care of them when I’m around the office.” He growled before climbing into his truck.

“You’re not a nice man, Nathan Ford.” Nate jumped when Parker whispered in his ear then punched him in the arm.

“Parker don’t do that.” He snapped. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You hurt Eliot. That was Eliot’s ‘I’m gonna hurt somebody’ growly voice. That’s the first he’s used it since we moved.” The thief picked up her bag and yelled. “HARDISON, WE GOTTA GO!”

Sophie sauntered up after the others left. “What was all that?”

“I think I was threatened by Eliot and chastised by Parker.” Nate scrubbed a hand over his face.

Sophie’s eyes got wide. “Why would Eliot threaten you? I thought he was courting you?”

“I think he was having flashbacks of Miami,” Nate murmured, “and I might have said something stupid.”

“But you’ve been doing so much better.” The grifter soothed.

“Plans … He doesn’t trust us to back him so he’s running a parallel plan in his head, exit strategies if something goes wrong. That’s one of the reasons I could never catch him.” He’d wait ‘til I figured his game, then he’d change it.” He turned to look thoughtfully at Sophie. “You really don’t understand what it is Eliot does, do you?”

She opened her mouth to give a flip answer, but when she saw the expression on Nate’s face she reconsidered. When she shook her head, no, the ex-investigator gave her a smile.

“Let’s get going and I’ll give you a crash course on retrieval specialists. Mind you Eliot is not your typical hitter … Eliot isn’t your typical anything.”

At her confused look, he heaved a sigh. “Never mind, get the door.”

They locked the office and followed the rest of the team to Eugene.

They’d been in and around Holder’s operations for a week before another incident took place. Jos, Evelyn and Eliot were at one of the remote sites for a routine inspection.

Eliot hung back from the father and daughter so as to not interfere with the loggers’ regular operations, but was able to watch the whole field of play looking for anything out of the ordinary.

The rest of the Leverage team was gathered around the table in the hotel suite, going over the information, Alec and Parker had gathered at Holder’s offices. Nate had stood to refill his coffee cup when they heard Eliot yell.

“Son of a…EVERYONE GET DOWN!”

There was a woman’s scream, the sounds of bodies hitting the ground and a moan of pain from Eliot.

Silence.

Silence.

Sounds of running and yelling.

Silence.

Then Jos yelling for medics, Eliot’s trying to calm everyone down while gritting his teeth against the burn across his back.

The team sat silent waiting for Eliot to give them an update, but the retrievalist remained silent. Nathan opened his mouth to demand a report when he heard a voice over Eliot’s com.

“It’s not deep enough for stitches, but you really should have that looked at, Mr. Baker. The jaw off that knuckle boom did a number on your back. Might wanta update your tetanus.”

“My shots are fine. Kinda need ‘em in my line of work. Call me Mark.” Eliot growled. “Clean it, butterfly the edges together, cover it so my shirt won’t catch—it’ll be fine.” Breathing in shallow pants, he sent Evelyn to the truck for a shirt out of his duffel.

The medic didn’t seem put off by the brusque attitude. “Ted Andrews. Jos and Evie’s right lucky you were paying attention. That boom probably’d killed ‘em if you hadn’t pushed ‘em down like that.”

“Eliot? What’s going on?” Nathan tried to sound calm.

Eliot ignored the voice in his ear. “Sounds like you know the bosses pretty well?” He sucked in a breath as antiseptic hit abraded flesh.

”Went to school with Evie. Jos gave me a job straight out of school. Worked my way up to bossin’ these guys.”

“You’re close to the family?” Eliot practically purred at the man.

Four sets of eyes turned to Nate as he slammed his coffee cup on the table. “Damn it, Spencer! We don’t have time for you to get laid.”

The rest of Nate’s tirade was cut off as the medic answered. “Me and Evie dated a couple years. Thought it was gettin’ serious.” He pulled the edges of the nasty gash together and applied butterfly bandages. Andrews covered as many of the abrasions as he could. “I was getting’ ready to pop the question when her mom died. Evie cut everyone off and put everything into the company and her dad and brother.”

“That’s harsh, man.” Eliot sympathized.

“I tried backin’ off, you know, givin’ her space, all she said was she didn’t have time for anything outside her family. They needed her, and that she hoped I understood, and that she hoped we could still work together.” The voice turned sour.

“I can relate,” Eliot dropped his voice as though sharing a secret, “came home from workin’ overseas to find my girl marryin’ another guy. Gave her a ring and all before I left.” He let bitterness shade his voice to draw the man in. “Her daddy had the sweetest little thoroughbred operation. It’da been a sweet deal.”

“Here’s your shirt, Mark. You sure you don’t need a hospital? Is there anything I can do for you? We owe you so much.” Evelyn asked, rambling. Her demeanor still shaky after Eliot shoved her from the path of the out of control knuckle boom.

“I’m sorry about your back. If you hadn’t covered me, it could have taken my head off.” Her eyes started to well with tears. “Thank you for saving me and my dad.”

“I’ll be fine Ms. Evelyn. I’m sure your daddy could probably use a hand workin’ up an incident report.” He crooned in his best southern gentlemen style.

Parker and Hardison snickered as they watched Nate grind his teeth to keep quiet while Eliot worked. Sophie was in awe. Even though Nate had explained the variety of skills that a good retrieval specialist needed to be successful, she’d never associated them with the prickly Eliot Spencer.

The hacker had started a search on Ted Andrews as soon as he’d given Eliot his name. He was hoping to have something before Nate popped a vessel.

The hitter pulled the clean shirt on over his bandaged back. “You git down ‘round the wood yard before the week’s out, the beer’s on me for patchin’ me up, man. I appreciate it.” Eliot offered the foreman his hand.

“I’ll be down that way end of the week with the time sheets. I might just take you up on the offer, Mark. You take care of that back keep it clean and dry.”

Eliot wandered over and looked at the mangled piece of equipment. He studied all the hydraulics, hoses, and ran his fingers through the fluids. He looked at Jos with a frown.

The older man shook his head, told the head mechanic to salvage what he could. When he and Evelyn went in the office with Andrews, Eliot finally turned his attention to his teammates.

“Hardison, you find anything on Andrews?”

“Not so far, I haven’t gotten his financials back yet, so far no trouble with the law, certified EMT, worked for Holder for 15 years.” Alec reported.

Before anyone could say anything else the Holders were back at the truck ready for the return trip to the city.

Eliot hoped that everyone had gone to their own rooms by the time he got back to the hotel so he could grab some supper, a shower, and sleep. He didn’t have the patience to sooth skittish teammates because he got a little beat up.

He sighed inwardly when he entered the suite and saw them sitting like monkeys on a log staring at the door. The blue laser beam glare he gave them sent Hardison and Sophie skittering to their rooms. He winced as Parker gave him a hug and told him Nate was practicing his growly voice all afternoon before chasing after Alec. And then there was Nathan Ford.

Nate had been silently observing Eliot – watching how he moved – trying to determine how badly he was injured. Eliot was smooth. His only tell was when Parker had hugged him. The slight winces hadn’t been noticed by the others, but he was motivated to ferret out all the hidden aspects to the man he had begun to care about.

“How bad?” Nate clenched his hands to keep from pulling the shirt off Eliot to check his back.

“Not bad. Bruises, scrapes, shallow gash. I’m fine. Nothing a shower and sleep won’t cure.”

“I’ll put clean bandages on it after you shower.” Nate stated.

Eliot studied their ringleader for a minute. “Can’t talk you out of it?”

“Humor me. I’ll have Hardison get you some dinner while you shower.” Nate’s tone was firm.

The specialist started to protest until the older man reached and cupped his cheek. “The silence on your com was the longest in my life since … Well … Awhile.” Nate whispered as he pulled Eliot into his arms.

Taking care not to touch the injured back, they stood taking comfort in each other. Eliot was the first to pull away. He turned to head for the shower.

“Eliot?”

He stopped at the tentative note in Nate’s voice.

“About what I said back at the office …” He ducked his head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply …” He shuffled his feet a bit. “I’m sorry.”

“S’okay.” He started to turn away then stopped. “I’ll be the first to admit I’ve used the honey trap to get what I want, but I’ve never been anything but honest with this crew.”

When he came back into the common area sans shirt, with his first aid kit, Nate had dinner waiting.

“When you’re finished, we need to get an update from Hardison and decide where we’re going from here.”

With the information Alec and Parker had gleaned from the offices at the wood yard and Ted Andrews’ records, they came up with a plan.

Andrews and Eliot had gotten together when he came into town. The foreman had been impressed with how the retrievalist had handled himself, and tried to recruit him to help drive Holder into selling to Allpoints. Hardison had captured the conversation off the com, Eliot had taken it and their other evidence to Holder who went to the police.

A week later, Allpoints Logging was under investigation, Ted Andrews and his cohorts were in jail, and the Holders were getting their company back on track.

If the Leverage coffers were better lined than before–Allpoints couldn’t admit that their cash slush fund had come up missing. They even let Parker play with the cash until they got back to the office.

Eliot, Hardison and Parker’s part in the game had ended when they turned the evidence over to Josiah, so they had left Eugene several hours before the Nate and Sophie. They had stayed behind to wrap things up with the Holders and to monitor the situation with Allpoints.

It was after dark by the time Nate dropped Sophie at her place. A smile lit his face when he stepped into the foyer and noticed several table lamps burning so Nate wouldn’t trip and break his neck. It gave him one of those warm fuzzies caused by Eliot. Who would have thought that a man who could be so violent could be so domesticated.

He’d gone to his room, showered and put on his sweats. He poured a couple of fingers of scotch and wandered downstairs in search of the book he was reading before they’d left. A sound from the back of the house caught his attention.

Wondering why whatever was in the back hadn’t set off Hardison’s alarms, Nate walked to the kitchen door. He paused, letting his eyes adjust to the dark when the soft sounds of a guitar carried across the porch.

“Ya gonna stand there and gawk or come sit down?” The honeyed growl flowed through the dark.

Nate shivered in reaction as he crossed the porch and sat. Had he really had the thought that the enforcer was domesticated.

“I heard something and came to check.” He took a small sip to settle his nerves. “I thought you’d turned in by now.”

With a shrug Eliot went back to quietly strumming. “Couldn’t. Old friends and new, thought I buy ‘em a beer.”

He took a pull off the beer sitting at his feet then went back to playing while humming under his breath.

“Wanna talk about it?” Nate asked quietly, not wanting to break the mood.

“Do you?” Blue/grey eyes seemed to glow in the reflection of the house lights.

Nate huffed at the reversal Eliot had thrown him.

“Didn’t think so.” A bitter chuckle wafted through the shadows.

He gathered up the bottle and his guitar and walked past Nate into the house. He was almost clear when Nate reached out and snagged his wrist.

His first reaction was to twist out of the hold and bring the bottle around and drop whoever was foolish enough to grab him. He paused for a heartbeat as his senses recalled where he was and who he was with. He stilled — he waited another heartbeat before trying to speak.

The older man froze, still holding Eliot’s wrist. He didn’t so much as twitch as he waited for the hitter’s reaction to being grabbed. He mentally chided himself as an idiot while bracing himself.

He opened his hand and his eyes at the same time watching the younger man. He watched Eliot draw a breath – then another trying to quell his natural reaction.

“Not the smartest move you ever made.” He hissed.

“Got that. Sorry.” He mumbled when he finally got enough saliva back to make his tongue work.

He turned to continue into the house.

“Eliot?” The words are spoken quietly.

“Yeah, Nate.” He replied wearily.

“Why did you stay?” Nate cringed at the question. That wasn’t what he meant to ask. “It’s obvious you don’t trust us.” *In for a penny.* Nate thought. He knows he’s pushing Eliot hard. He mentally crosses his fingers the specialist won’t bolt.

Steeling himself, Eliot turns back to the first person he’s totally trusted since he’d left Kentucky.

“I want it back.” He says simply as though that explained everything.

Seeing Nate’s confusion, he dredged up some more words.

“Sophie wasn’t the only one that conned us. You had your part in that little charade.” He watched Ford squirm under the accusation. “You knew what she was doing and you didn’t warn us. Just left us out there like a Judas goat while Sophie screwed us.” The angry growl was back.

“So I’m willing to stay, and try to rebuild what we had. I was just getting used to being part of a crew. But now – now it’s gonna take time. You make your plans I make mine. I won’t be blindsided again. I won’t let you and Sophie put the three of us in that position again.”

“What about us? Where are you going with that?” Nate moved to stand in front of the younger man.

“I already told you, it’s your call, Nate.” Eliot turned to throw his bottle in the trash.

When he turned back, Nate slid his fingers through the thick fall of hair at his nape and pulled. Eliot met him halfway. When they broke the kiss both men were panting lightly.

Foreheads resting together, the retrievalist ran gentle fingers along Nate’s cheek.

“Be sure Nate. My bullshit threshold’s real low and I keep what’s mine. I have to have trust. This won’t work otherwise.” The gravel voice dropped to a purr.

They parted briefly to lock the mansion down for the night. Nate was surprised when he got to his room. No Eliot. Where the—he entered the attic room to see his new lover setting the guitar gently on its stand.

A hand reached for Nate, who moved readily into the muscular arms. A kiss, long and slow left his lips ripe and mouth thoroughly explored. Taking a breath, Eliot dove back in, and when Nate came back to his senses, he was stretched across Eliot’s big bed without his clothes. He looked up to see tanned skin that seemed to go on forever, and it might take him that long to explore it all.

The End

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