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Too Late The Hero

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“So … how’ve you been?”

Doctor Walt Toller sat forward in his seat and rested his elbows on his worn desk, and steepling his fingers, gazed calmly at Eliot Spencer, who was sitting equally calmly on a chair in Toller’s Portland office and gazing steadily back at him.

Eliot thought for a moment, and then shrugged.

“Okay.”

A snort came from Eliot’s left.

“Yeah, sure you are, man …”

Toller tried to suppress a smile. He looked at the young black man who sprawled in his chair, glaring at Eliot.

“Should I open this up to the group, perhaps? Comments, anyone?”

Eliot scowled, but said nothing.

Sophie, dandling a cheerful Lizzie on her knee, sent Eliot a look of ill-contained impatience and then turned her best smile on the little doctor who was trying his best to deal with a stubborn Eliot Spencer and the decades-old grenade fragment in his back.

“He’s been a bit sore lately,” she said, her voice laced with an underlying threat to Eliot to behave himself and stop being a mule-headed idiot who didn’t know what was best for him.

“Huh. You noticed that too?” Nate interjected, sending a questioning glare at their hitter, who ignored him.

“Sometimes he winces,” Parker said from her usual place on the floor, sitting cross-legged beside Hardison. “He thinks we don’t know, but we do. And he rolls his shoulder a lot and rubs his back when he thinks we’re not looking. And it hurts him to pick Lizzie up sometimes, so he doesn’t. It makes him sad,” Parker added, narrowing her eyes at Eliot, who was doing his very best not to throw a conniption and tell the whole friggin’ bunch of ‘em – except Lizzie of course – to go to hell.

Toller relaxed back in his chair and studied his patient and his family. He knew that while Eliot would much prefer to attend the check-ups on his back all by his lonesome, his team had read him the riot act and told him that they would all be accompanying him, because they didn’t trust him to tell them the important stuff. A report that simply consisted of ‘I’m fine’ just didn’t work for them. At all.

Toller sighed and opened Eliot’s real file. This was a file he kept to himself, at home, and locked in a sturdy safe. He knew what Eliot and the rest of his team did, and he knew about the good things they did for people who had no other recourse but Leverage International. But he also knew they walked the world of the damned, of those who did bad things to good people, and it had earned them all – especially Eliot – bounties on their heads from some very, very nasty sources. To that end, he guarded Eliot’s file as best as he could.

But today was all about Eliot and the razor-sharp fragment in his lower back. Toller had the x-ray reports and scan results, and he needed to have a discussion with the man. Which really meant with the team, and Eliot just had to deal with it.

“Okay … let me see … since you didn’t attend your first appointment –“

Eliot sat up straight and frowned.

“Soph had just had Lizzie. I was kinda occupied,” he said, a little defensively.

Toller pursed his lips and nodded.

“I can live with that. But I’m glad you came today, as I can see by your x-rays that things have changed a bit since I last saw you.”

The tension in the room, already noticeable, increased tenfold. The last time Toller had seen Eliot was in a hospital in Wallowa, Oregon, after the hitter had suffered some serious injuries while saving Parker from an old booby trap*. It was during this difficult time that the team had discovered one of Eliot’s secrets – a grenade fragment embedded deep in his lower back, a relic of his time in the army as a younger man.

But what was worrying the team – and, secretly, was now causing Eliot a whole bunch of nightmares none of them knew about – was the damn’ thing was moving, and had been doing so for nearly twenty years. Slowly, so slowly, but Toller had told them that it needed to be monitored on a regular basis. So, here they all were, making sure Eliot actually attended his appointment by escorting him en masse to his appointment with Toller. He was apt to give them the slip if they didn’t herd him firmly in the right direction.

Toller found the latest x-rays of Eliot’s lower back and put them up on the old light box he had installed in his office. Although Eliot was registered in the hospital system under an alias – Ellis Stone – Toller took no chances. He didn’t want any record of Eliot in the hospital records system. He looked at four concerned faces around him, but Eliot didn’t respond at all to the image of the misshapen, raggedy-edged hunk of metal lodged deep in the narrow muscle between his spine and right kidney, his visage set and stony.         

Sophie, on the other hand, couldn’t stop the sharp intake of breath as she gazed in alarm at the image. Lizzie, sensing her mother’s distress, burbled quietly.

“Dear god, Eliot …”

“S’not that bad …” Eliot mumbled quietly, embarrassed that his team was taking the whole situation so … so … seriously. He’d lived with the thing for years, and it was his problem. He had agreed that they help, and he tolerated their fussin’ and even appreciated it on occasion, but he was the one who had to deal with it … he was the one who had put up with the increasing ache and sharp, digging pains that were plaguing him almost daily now. He didn’t even want to think about the episode when he collapsed the day Lizzie was born. He had managed to pass it off as exhaustion and incipient hypothermia, and he hadn’t had a repeat of the numbness and pain in his back and right leg, but he had to admit, if only to himself … he was scared shitless.

He thought he had managed to hide any hint of pain or discomfort. But he hadn’t factored in the eagle-eyed watchfulness of his friends, who knew him better that he had ever realised.

But he realised Toller was pointing out the position of the fragment and its relation to nerves and muscles and blood vessels, and he tuned back in, trying to figure out what life would have in store for him.

“ – and it’s now very close to the nerve lying beside a lumbar vertebra that leads to the femoral nerve, which controls walking … running, that sort of thing.” Toller paused, letting these people he liked very much indeed have a moment to ingest the information. “It needs to come out. And sooner, rather than later,” he added.

Oh crap.

Eliot hated hospitals. He hated them with an unutterable loathing, especially if he was the poor bastard laid up in one, usually with bits of him in dire need of professional repair. But to commit himself to a hospital stay voluntarily and have his back cut open was … unthinkable. He realised his hands were gripping the arms of the chair so hard his knuckles ached, and suddenly, desperately, he needed to be gone.

He didn’t hear the sudden babble of voices around him and his head throbbed with the urgency of wanting to be anywhere else but here, and he was already half out of his chair when a solid weight landed on his lap and he had to sit back down again.

Two small, chubby arms wrapped around his neck and a bubbly chuckle made him sit back in his seat as Miss Elizabeth Grace Ford, aged ten months, three weeks and one day exactly, hung on to her favouritest Dangerous Person in the whole world. He instinctively held her close, now effectively pinned to his seat and unable to move. Lizzie blew wet raspberries on Eliot’s neck and giggled.

Sophie flashed Eliot a knowing glance of triumph. Lizzie was a very handy shackling tool, especially when it came to Eliots.

Eliot, now with a loving armful of baby, glared daggers at Sophie, who smirked. Dammit.

Nate, all business now, wanted facts.

“Okay … how soon? And what preparation do we need to do?”

Eliot snarled, even as Lizzie began chewing on his hair. She had a tooth coming through, and Eliot’s mane was an easy target.

“Dammit, Nate, it’s not up to you! It’s my back,” he rasped, furious, “an’ I have to make the decision. It ain’t yours to make!” Eliot’s soft Oklahoma accent deepened as stress took hold.

“Yes it is,” Parker said, frowning up at him. “Remember Eliot … you promised to let us know if you were hurting, and if you needed us. And we’re holding you to it. We can’t stand by and let you deal with this on your own, and I’m tired of seeing you wince and hold your shoulder funny because your back hurts, and Lizzie misses you too,” she added, now in full swing. “She gets sad ‘cause you can’t pick her up sometimes, and you really struggle to get off the couch and carry her when she’s asleep on your chest because that thing in your back is making your leg weak.”

Eliot’s face was a mass of confusion.

They noticed? Jeez. He must be slipping. Or getting old. Probably both, he decided.

It had taken him a while to recover from his injuries, and the team had taken great care not to let him back in the field until he could punch bad guys with alacrity and power, so how the hell had he managed to let all of this slip? He knew he was a better grifter than that.

“We got your six, El,” Hardison said softly. “Get fixed up. You can’t go on like this, man. It’s killin’ us watchin’ you.”

Eliot, now convinced Hardison and Lizzie had seen ‘waaaay too many episodes of NCIS, allowed himself to tighten his gentle hold of Lizzie, her talcum-and-baby smell comforting him and her inane chattering grounding him like nothing else could.

He saw Nate’s blue eyes soften, and his resolve began to crumble. He looked around at these people who seemed to be able to invade his privacy and who were happily oblivious to Eliot’s self-imposed ‘damn-well-leave-me-alone’ strictures. They just didn’t give a rat’s ass about annoying him because they cared too friggin’ much to take any notice.

They gazed back at him, worry and concern in every face, even as Lizzie managed to balance on Eliot’s lap and stand unsteadily on her toes as he held her. She would be walking soon, he knew.

But he would be the one unable to walk beside her, watch her take her first running steps, or even teach her how to ride a pony, if he didn’t get his back fixed.

He took a deep breath, gritted his teeth and nodded.

“Give me a couple of weeks, Doc, just to get some stuff figured out. Would that work?”

The sighs of relief were huge, and Parker flashed a grin of happiness.

“See? Not so hard, was it?” she crowed quietly.

Toller checked his diary and nodded.

“Works for me. Listen, Eliot – this is a good thing you’re doing. There is no reason you won’t make a full recovery and you can carry on with your life. Although,” he added, smiling, “I’m pleased to see there have been no further broken bones or injuries since I saw you last.”

Hardison’s mobile face broke into a toothy grin.

“Yeah, well … Eliot an’ me, we’ve been thinkin’ on body armour an’ the prototype has been workin’ a treat. It’s all about the spider webs, Doc – synthetic spidey-silk. Tougher, stronger an’ lighter when woven into body armour. Tie that in with shear-thickenin’ fluid an’ we got somethin’ special.” Hardison nodded proudly. “So far, so good.”

Eliot scowled.

“It still hurts when someone hits you with a brick, Hardison! It just stops the broken bones!”

“Oh, stop whinin’, El. And you’re welcome,” he added sarcastically. “I just saved you from a nasty whuppin’ a coupla times, is all. No need to thank me all at once.”

Toller couldn’t completely stop the grin from creeping onto his face. He had forgotten how much fun it was working with this bunch of nutcases. And now they had a baby added to the mix, which was a bonus. The little girl was clearly very much loved if Eliot’s care of the child now using him as a climbing frame was anything to go by. How he managed to keep up the Mister-Don’t-Mess-With-Me persona with a baby chewing his hair into slobbery strings Toller didn’t know, but Eliot somehow made it work.

“Two weeks, Eliot. It’s a date, okay? Then we’ll take that damn’ thing out of your back and you can get on with living.” Toller wrote down the date Eliot needed to present himself at the hospital and handed it to the hitter. Sophie intercepted it before Eliot could get hold of it.

“I’ll deal with this, Doctor,” she said. “It’ll be easier if I have the details.”

“We’ll make sure he’s here on time,” Nate added, “and let us know if there is anything Eliot will need ahead of the operation. Whatever it happens to be, Walt. Okay?”

“And I’ll need to know about any physio he should be working on afterwards. I can help him with that,” Parker interjected.

“I’ll organise someone to come in and maybe, y’know, make up some new menus while you’re out of action,” Hardison straightened in his chair. “Maybe try somethin’ new … experiment a li’l bit.” The hacker’s face was all innocence.

Eliot growled, making Lizzie giggle. It was bad enough that these so-called friends of his were organising his life now, but Hardison interfering with his menus?? The hacker was dead meat if he went anywhere near his goddamn menus.

Dammit, Hardison –“ Eliot’s growl turned antsy.

“Hey, bro! Language!” Hardison was all mock horror and round eyes. He knew how sensitive Eliot was regarding cussin’ around Lizzie.

The child in question cackled happily as she gummed and tugged Eliot’s loose hair. He was beginning to look like a refugee from the sixties, and he simmered fiercely at the cocky hacker, now grinning like the fool with a death wish he obviously was. It was hellaciously difficult to give Hardison the Patent Spencer Death Glare when you had a child making you look like an ill-kempt bush. His left eye tic’d.

Toller, amused as he was, had other patients to see, so he stood up and waved his hand at the door.

“Go. Get out of here and I’ll see you in two weeks. All of you,” he added, hazel eyes twinkling.

He watched as Eliot held Lizzie safely in his left arm and levered himself out of the chair with his right, and Toller saw the tension in the man’s right arm as his back twinged. But the child was safe, and he could see the rest of the team desperate to help, but knowing Eliot wouldn’t appreciate it.

Once Eliot was standing, straight and strong, Toller saw the blue eyes glance at him, and the Oklahoman nodded in acknowledgement, Lizzie close to his heart and Eliot’s arms around her as though he could protect her from the devil himself.

“Be seein’ you, Doc,” Eliot rasped, and then they were gone, easing themselves out of his office and into their world.


Dinner that night in the brewpub was a quiet affair, Eliot not cooking for once, and they sat around chatting, the conversation filled with soft laughter and teasing. It was just what Eliot needed, they knew, to stop him drawing in on himself and becoming even crankier than his usual anti-social self.

Lizzie sat in her high-chair and ate whatever was put in front of her, the team as one shovelling morsels in her ever-open mouth and wiping up the mess when she chewed a carrot stick into shreds. She burbled and chuntered and giggled, a happy child with a family who loved her, and all was well with her world.

The only down point in the evening was Eliot watching a couple seated in the far corner near the kitchen. He had caught the agitation in the man’s face, and the discomfort in the girl’s body language, and he kept an eye on them even as he talked with his friends.

Hardison and Parker were having an argument about which was the best place to hide one’s millions, the Caymans or Lebanon, with Nate plugging Panama as an alternative and Sophie doing her best to wrangle a badly mushed banana out of Lizzie’s sticky grip.

But Eliot was only half listening. The young couple’s discussion was becoming more disagreeable. The man suddenly reached out and grasped his companion’s wrist and twisted it cruelly, bending her hand backwards, and Eliot’s keen hearing registered the stifled yelp as she tried to pull her hand free. The young man smiled viciously, and twisted harder.

“Just goin’ to the john,” Eliot murmured and stood up, clenching his fists for a moment before ambling over to the couple’s table. The rest of the team didn’t notice as they continued with their good-natured argument.

As he approached the couple Eliot eased his face into a amiable smile, eyes crinkling with humour.

“Hey, folks,” he said, his voice warm and welcoming, “I’m the chef here and I hope your food was okay this evening?”

As he spoke, he held out his right hand as though proffering a hand-shake.

The young man, a tall, good-looking individual with arrogance oozing from every pore, quickly let go of the girl’s wrist and she pulled back in relief. Her companion instinctively reached out his arm to shake Eliot’s hand.

In less than two seconds, Eliot had a hold of the man’s wrist, stretched out the self-righteous little prick’s right arm and brought his powerful left hand down to crush the bunch of nerves in the brachial plexus at the front of the man’s shoulder just above the armpit. The pressure was agonising and the man’s entire body became rigid, a grunt of extreme pain working its way past his clenched teeth.

Eliot, masking his actions by placing his back to the rest of the room, leaned forward and whispered in his opponent’s ear.

“Okay, man, I’ll say this once and if you do as I say, nothin’ will happen. You understand?”

The girl’s eyes were wide with fear, but she didn’t move. The man nodded jerkily.

“Y … yeah,” he grated.

“Good man,” Eliot said, his voice low and calm and absolutely terrifying. “So … what you do is pay the bill, get up, get outta here an’ don’t come back. And you never see this young lady ever again. Or I’ll break you so bad even your momma won’t recognise you. See what I’m sayin’?”

The young man nodded, and Eliot eased off, letting the now-limp arm drop and patting the man on his shoulder.

“Glad you liked the entrée,” he said conversationally. “Sorry you have to go so soon.”

He stood, relaxed and smiling, as he watched the man painfully ease out of the booth seat and rub his shoulder, and then pull a handful of banknotes out of his pocket and toss them on the table before stalking stiffly from the brewpub, his eyes full of fury and embarrassment.

Eliot looked down at the girl, his eyes soft with concern.

“You got somewhere safe to go?” he asked gently.

She nodded, rubbing the deepening bruise on her wrist.

Eliot turned to the bartender.

“Sam, can you call this young lady a cab an’ make sure she has enough money to get her to a safe place? Thanks, man,” he added, as Sam nodded, understanding.

The girl stood up and gazed into Eliot’s blue eyes. She clasped his hand for a moment.

“Thank you,” she said shakily, and then Sam was making sure she was alright and her attention was taken up with a future free of fear.

Wandering back to his table, Eliot saw Hardison look up at him, suddenly realising Eliot hadn’t been sitting next to him for the past few minutes.

“You okay, bro?”

Eliot, smiling easily now and feeling a little better in himself and more relaxed, nodded.

“I’d go for St. Vincent … great confidentiality an’ no hassle …” he said, sliding seamlessly back into the conversation, and as the night wound down, he began to feel more like himself, thanks to his friends and their care and support.


It was nearly midnight when Eliot let himself out of the brewpub’s rear entrance and headed for the parking lot beside the building. He was going back to his austere little apartment, somewhere he could rest and take his ease. He needed to take in the events of the day and what it would mean for his future. And, he thought, what quality of life he would have in that future.

He was dog-tired, he realised. His back ached and the sharp, needling pain had begun again, sending throbbing streaks of agony down through his thigh and knee to his ankle. The muscles protested, pins and needles echoing through his leg. Damn, but he needed to relax and put his leg up on the couch with a cushion beneath the knee. It was the only thing that seemed to help.

But as he walked towards his old truck, he suddenly knew he wasn’t alone. Somewhere … deep in the shadows, danger lurked.

His walk became lighter, balanced and taut, despite the pain in his back, and his shoulders tensed, hands hanging loosely by his side. His breathing evened out, deep and calming, and his mind focused on the space around him.

There were at least three of them, he decided. One, to his right and slightly ahead of him. Another … a slight movement in the shadows … on his left alongside him, hiding beside a dumpster. The last one was slightly behind him, flat against a brick wall, melding into the darkness.

Amateurs.

But this wasn’t a time to be complacent. Eliot knew he wasn’t up to par, and he was in pain. But it couldn’t be helped.

The first blow when it came missed him by a hair’s breadth, swinging towards his head, but Eliot easily avoided it and punched low and hard, his right hand connecting with the soft belly of his attacker, who wheezed in agony and stumbled backwards.

To his left, the shadow moved and his attacker, younger and fitter than the first, managed to land a glancing blow on Eliot’s right arm, spinning him around, only for Eliot to catch hold of a wrist and forearm and twist viciously. The man’s elbow snapped.

His assailant stumbled away, screaming, and Eliot smoothly shifted onto his back foot and powered a punch at the last man, the one behind him, and damn, but this one was fast and Eliot missed, his weak leg giving way and he ended up dropping to his knee, stumbling forward.

Something wickedly hard hit him in the ribs. As the breath whooshed from his lungs in a grunt of pain, he saw the glint of metal, brass knuckles, he thought, and before he could catch his breath and move, a boot hit the back of his left knee and dropped him completely to the ground.

Another heavy work-boot caught him in the hip and a thrum of pure agony burst through him, his back arching as he yelled in pain. Someone grabbed hold of his left arm and hauled him to his feet, and god, it hurt, and it was then Eliot realised there was a fourth man, one that had arrived after the others.

The arrogant, surly, handsome face of the young man from the brewpub snarled at him, smiling, and the brass knuckles hit Eliot in the chest and he felt the ribs snap deep, deep inside.

The end came quickly.

Blows rained down on his face and chest, and a voice from very, very far away laughed as a steel-toe-capped boot smashed into his lower back.

Eliot couldn’t breathe. The pain was so, so bad as he felt a terrible, agonising shift in his back, and as he slid helplessly into oblivion he could hear someone screaming, and he realised that it was him.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


Nate dug out his car keys from his pocket and turned to Sophie, now putting on her coat in readiness for the short drive home. Parker stood behind her, Lizzie a limp, drooling lump in her arms. The child had conked out from a surfeit of good food, laughter and tickling, and Sophie hoped her daughter would be out for the count for the rest of the night. Lizzie had had quite a day.

Parker was staying overnight at Sophie and Nate’s house, and lifting her backpack awkwardly she followed them out of the rear door of the brewpub, Hardison walking with them towards the parking lot. He had plans for an all-night orc-battle-ish thingy on the big plasma screen upstairs in the Leverage International office.

“You think El’s gonna be okay with this,” he asked, still concerned for his friend. He knew what a big decision it had been for Eliot … to voluntarily submit to an operation on his back. Hardison knew he would loathe every minute.

Nate nodded.

“He has to be. He has no choice. His back’s a mess, and he knows it. All we can do is make sure he has all the help he needs, even if he doesn’t want it.”

“Which is why he’s such a pain in the arse to deal with,” Sophie grumbled quietly. She snuck a hold of Parker’s backpack seeing as the young thief was lugging around her child.

Parker frowned over Lizzie’s snuffling head as she looked ahead to the parking lot illuminated feebly by a couple of security lights.

“Why is Eliot’s truck still here?” she asked, confused.

“Can’t be,” Hardison scoffed, “Eliot left a while ago.” He peered at the truck parked next to Nate’s car. They were the only two vehicles in the lot. Hardison frowned. “Damn, woman … you’re right. That’s Eliot’s truck. What the hell?

Nate suddenly felt his gut tighten. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong. His easy amble turned into a jog. He squinted, trying to make out … something. There was a shape lying silently on the ground, shadowed by the bulk of the truck. Oh god. Oh-god-oh-god-oh-god-

“ELIOT!!”

He broke into a run, Hardison close on his heels, and the shape resolved into a body lying sprawled on its side on the far side of the truck, still and dark. The lights set glints of red reflecting from the puddles beside the body, and he could see matted, bloody hair framing a pale, battered face.

CALL 911!!!” he yelled, but Sophie was already on her cell phone, her voice shaking with fear, not knowing how badly hurt Eliot was – or even if he was still alive.

Parker stood frozen with shock, Lizzie still snoozing obliviously in her arms.

Eliot. Her Eliot, the big-brother Eliot who looked out for her and called her crazy with a huge helping of affection in his voice. He was lying over there … on the ground in the wet and the filth and he was hurt and his back … oh god, his back and that thing in his back could kill him and someone … some bastard … had hurt him –

She suddenly felt the weight of Lizzie’s lax body being lifted from her arms and she gazed into Sophie’s huge, alarmed brown eyes as she took her daughter out of Parker’s grasp.

Go,” the grifter gasped, still holding her cell phone as she juggled her daughter into her arms. “Go help! I’ll call Doctor Toller. Eliot … he needs …” Sophie swallowed back tears. “Go and help him! Please!

Parker blinked, and then shook herself free of the shock rushing through her system. And she ran with all of the fear and desperate hope she could hold in her heart.


The damage was terrible.

Hardison slid down beside Nate, ignoring the pain in his knees from the rough ground and trying to control the panic in his chest.

ELIOT!! Oh Jesus … Nate …Nate, is he …”

Nate looked up at the hacker, shock lining his face.

“He’s still alive, thank God. But … I don’t know … I don’t know what to do …”

Eliot lay partly on his left side, and Nate didn’t know how the hell he was going to touch Eliot without hurting him as he knelt beside his friend on the damp ground.

The hitter’s breathing was thready and hitching, and Nate could hear a faint bubble in Eliot’s chest. His face was a mass of bruises and his left eye was swollen shut, and his lip was split and bleeding. A deep cut in his hairline was caking blood in the thick dark hair, and a tear in Eliot’s shirt showed the deep, swollen bruising along his ribcage. Dusty marks on his jacket from what appeared to be boot-soles, stood out on Eliot’s back and sides.

Whoever had done this, Hardison realised, had kicked the unholy hell out of Eliot. Had kicked his back. He gently brushed away the drift of hair from Eliot’s face, and reached out for his friend’s hand, only to stop when he saw the bleeding, swollen knuckles.

Those sonsabitches – and he knew now there must have been several of them – had kicked Eliot almost to death. It was at that moment that Hardison vowed to make them pay. Big time.

Nate …” The weak voice, breathy and rasping, came from deep within the battered chest. A glint of blue showed from the eye that wasn’t swollen shut and Eliot, barely conscious, fixed Nate’s gaze with his own as though his life depended on it.

“Shhhh, Eliot,” Nate urged, “don’t speak … help’s on the way …” and taking off his jacket he draped it over the supine body, unwilling to move Eliot so much as an inch. He had no idea how much damage had been done, and he would leave it to the medics to make sure Eliot wasn’t hurt any more as they moved him.

Eliot’s one good eye blinked several times, slowly, painfully, and he struggled to speak, ignoring Nate’s entreaties.

“Nate … leg … can’t feel my leg … they … they kicked my back … friggin’ hurt …”

Oh shit.

Eliot coughed, and Nate felt a shiver of fear down his back as a small gout of pink, frothy blood spattered on the ground from Eliot’s lips. His lung was compromised, probably from a broken rib, and now Nate understood the crackly, rapid breathing.

“Chest … hurts to breathe …” Eliot gasped, speaking now through the blood in his throat.

Parker was suddenly beside them, reaching into her pocket to drag out a huge handkerchief. With infinite tenderness she wiped away the blood from Eliot’s mouth, and smiling through tears she refolded the handkerchief to a clean patch and gently pressed it against the gash in Eliot’s forehead.

“H-hey Sparky,” she whispered, all broken inside like shattered glass. “Sophie’s called an ambulance and Doctor Walt, so you’ll be safe soon and then you can heal up again. And this time you stay put and do as you’re told, okay??”

“Promise …” Eliot muttered breathlessly, and another trickle of blood oozed from the side of his mouth. “Cross … cross my heart … hope … hope to die …”

“Don’t you goddamn dare!” Hardison swore, even as the sirens sounded in the distance and the blue flash of light lit up the darkness of the night.


The trip to the hospital was one of the worst experiences of Hardison’s life. Just over a year previously he had also sat by Eliot as medics worked on him in an ambulance, but that had been a walk in the park compared to this.

Just moving the hitter had had Hardison’s heart in his mouth, even as Nate explained to the medics about the issue with Eliot’s back. All of them were aware that not knowing what had happened with the fragment meant that it could shift microscopically and severe an artery and he could bleed out before anyone could do a thing.

But against all the odds Eliot made it to the emergency room. He was unconscious, intubated to help his breathing and the medics were working to help his nicked lung. He was strapped to a back board, neck braced, and as they lifted him out of the ambulance Hardison saw Toller waiting, wearing scruffy jeans and an old jacket, obviously thrown on before he had headed to the hospital.

The little doctor paled when he saw the damage to Eliot’s strong body.

“What the hell happened??” he grated as he followed the medical staff wheeling Eliot on a gurney into an examination room.

“No idea,” Hardison countered, watching as Toller began to examine his best friend. “Don’t know who, don’t know why. Some shitty bastards just kicked the living hell out of him,” he added.

Toller didn’t answer as he barked out requests for blood gases, x-rays and scans to determine the damage, and then he turned to Hardison.

“How long ago?”

“Eliot left just before midnight. He must’ve been jumped just minutes later while he walked to his truck.” Hardison said. He checked his watch. It was now coming on for two in the morning. Two hours since Eliot had left them for the evening. Eliot had possibly lain out in the cold and dirt of a friggin’ parking lot for over an hour, desperately hurt, while not a hundred yards away in the warmth and comfort of the brewpub, Hardison and the rest of their weird little family had laughed and chatted over coffee and biscotti.

Toller nodded, working it out in his head.

“Okay … okay, so … as soon as I get some test results he’s going into surgery. I have no choice now – his lung is compromised and I have to take out that fragment. He’s stable enough to cope, so –“

“He told us he couldn’t feel his leg.” Hardison let the words come out in a rush, feeling the guilt and the horror at what Eliot was enduring.

Toller wiped a hand over his face and nodded.

Damnation. Right. Where are the others?”

“On their way. They followed right behind us but got caught by red lights, but they won’t be long.”

Toller’s hazel eyes were soft with compassion.

“I’ll keep you in the loop. It’s going to be a long night,” he added, grasping Hardison’s arm and squeezing it in sympathy. “Look after them, and I’ll look after Eliot. Deal?”

Hardison quirked a nervous smile.

“Deal.” The smile faded as quickly as it had appeared. “Take care of him for us, Doc. He’s the only miserable, bad-tempered sonofabitch we got, an’ he’s precious to us.”

Toller scratched his fingers over his short-cropped hair and gave Hardison a look of concern.

“I’ll do my best, my friend,” he answered.

Hardison nodded.

“Good enough. You go do your thing, Doc. I’ll take care of everything else.”

And with a final long, hard look at Eliot’s unconscious form, now being cut out of his clothes and worked on by a team of skilled professionals, Hardison turned and headed back to find his family.


Toller had been right.

The night was long and infinitely stressful because the team didn’t know if their hitter would still be alive come morning.

Nate hunted around for a quiet place in the waiting area for them to settle and wait for Toller to come back to them. He found a little corner away from the main section of seats, unoccupied because it was situated away from the main waiting area where stressed families and friends could keep an eye on the comings and goings of staff. Team Leverage didn’t need to see what was going on – they knew Toller would find them, so they dug in for the duration.

A couple of spare seats were purloined and pushed together to make an impromptu bed for Lizzie, who lay sleeping happily sprawled on a pile of warm coats beside her father. And then with despicably bad coffee from the machine in the nearby corridor in hand, they huddled together and had a council of war.

Hardison had his little electronic notebook in hand, and while they waited for news, they went over what they knew so far.

“We know Eliot – just like the rest of us - has enemies,” Nate said grimly, leaning forward and keeping his voice low. “Has he done any freelance stuff lately?”

Hardison shook his head.

“Nope. Not since Lizzie was born. He seems to have been happy enough just doin’ our own jobs. Thinkin’ about it, it’s probably because his back was actin’ up an’ we’ve been workin’ on the spidey-armour.” Hardison frowned. “Don’t mean someone ain’t out for his blood, though. He’s pissed off a mighty crowd of folks over the years.” He gazed at Nate. “Moreau?”

Nate shook his head.

“Doubt it. Eliot would be deader than a doornail and us with him … including Lizzie.” Nate couldn’t suppress a shudder. “Still … I often think we should have just killed the bastard. No … it’s not Moreau. But I think as soon as he’s out of surgery we make sure Eliot’s not left alone.”

“I’ll stay,” Parker piped up. “You and Sophie have Lizzie to look after, and Hardison is going hunting, I can tell.” She smiled tearily at Hardison, who nodded.

“I want whoever did this, Nate. I’ll keep the police outta this – I can hack the hospital records an’ keep ‘em away from Eliot. It’s safer for all of us that way.”

“Eliot was with us all evening, right? Until he left to go home?” Sophie’s thoughtful words struck a chord with Hardison.

“Yeah … all night. Oh, wait – he told me he was goin’ to the john. I didn’t even notice he’d gone until he sat back down.”

“He couldn’t have gone to the rest room,” Parker added, puzzled. “I saw him over by the kitchen doors talking to a man and a girl. But he was smiley, so I didn’t think anything of it. But the man got up and left a little bit later and the girl was talking to Sam.”

Hardison frowned. The brewpub rest rooms were on the opposite side of the dining area to the kitchen. Something didn’t add up.

“I’ll speak to Sam about it. That’s not right …”

Nate agreed, nodding.

“Eliot was thoroughly worked over by at least one person who had experience at this sort of thing. There was no finesse … no balance or thought, really. It was just brutal muscle power. Maybe a bare-knuckle fighter or boxer. But the blows were strategically placed … kidneys, back, ribs … we might find a lead there.”

“They didn’t know he was already hurt …” Sophie whispered. “If he’d been fit they wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

Nate looked at his watch. It was nearly seven in the morning. Eliot had been in surgery for nearly five hours. He looked at his friends. No-one spoke for long moments, their thoughts with their injured brother.

But a soft, weary voice interrupted their reverie.

“Hey, people. He’s out of surgery and in intensive care.” Walt Toller was standing looking at them, still in his scrubs, and he smiled, tiredness etched into the lines on his amiable face.

All of them sagged in relief, but Sophie let out a barely controlled gasp of worry.

“Sit down, Doctor Toller. Tell us how he is. Tell us everything.”

The team made room for him as Toller sank down into a chair. He looked exhausted. But reaching into the breast pocket of the scrubs he pulled out a small, shiny object and handed it to Nate.

“That’s the little SOB that’s been causing all of the problems.”

Nate slowly turned the inch-long shard of metal over and over in his fingers, and studied the sharp edges. He glanced up at Toller as he handed the fragment to Sophie, who just stared at it.

“How bad is it?”

Toller shrugged.

“Well, it turned out better than I expected, I have to say. That blow he took to his back, while it shifted the fragment, actually did Eliot a favour, would you believe.”

“How so?” Hardison asked, disbelieving, as Sophie passed the fragment to him.

“It actually saved Eliot’s life. The blow, instead of driving the sharp edge of the fragment through the leader nerve and into a major artery, pushed the fragment sideways.” He waited for a second or two to let the information sink in, and then continued. “So, instead of cutting through the myelin sheath that protects the nerve, the flat side of the fragment flattened the sheath while the nerve axons, although damaged, are still intact.”

Nate looked at his friends, and then turned again to Toller. This sounded hopeful.

“So … where does this leave Eliot?”

Toller smiled.

“It means that he won’t end up in a wheelchair. It won’t be easy for him,” he added, raising a hand to stop the rush of questions he could feel bubbling around him, “but given time and proper treatment and letting him heal up from the beating he’s taken, and there’s a reasonable chance of a full recovery.”

The relief was almost palpable.

Hardison punched the air quietly.

YES!” he crowed softly, and he gave Parker an impromptu hug. In turn Parker flung herself at Toller, who found himself pinned to the chair with an armful of thief. Parker gave him a smacking kiss on the cheek.

Clever Doctor Walt!!” she hissed triumphantly.

Toller realised Parker wasn’t about to let go, so he dealt with it mentally and continued.

“However …” he said soberly, “He’s not out of the woods yet.”

Parker let go. Sinking back down onto the floor she stared up at the doctor, scowling. Maybe Doctor Walt wasn’t as clever as she thought.

“How bad is it?” Nate asked cautiously.

Toller took a deep breath and continued.

“I don’t really know where to start. Apart from the nerve damage, which will need time to self-repair … he has badly bruised kidneys, several broken ribs – one of which pierced his lung – concussion, cuts, extensive bruising … he’s a mess. We have him on a ventilator to help him breathe, and I’ve had him sedated just to give the area around the damaged nerve time to recover. He had a lot of bleeding around the removal site and the bruising and swelling is severe. We won’t really know how much damage to the nerve there is until it reduces. But the good thing is that nerves can regenerate. I have a feeling he won’t let it beat him.”

Hardison smiled shakily.

“Yeah. Eliot’s too damn mean to give in to a bit of pain.” He said proudly. “When can we see him?”

Toller gave the hacker a wry grin.

“Couple of hours? Let him settle in and rest a bit. He’s unconscious, but you never know … I suspect he’ll know you’re there. Go eat, and we’ll see you soon.”

They could do that, Hardison thought. God knows, they needed the break. Eliot was alive and breathing, and he had a chance now. And, Hardison decided, as soon as he had seen Eliot for himself, he was heading off to speak to Sam at the brewpub. Because he was going to find this vicious sonofabitch, destroy his life, and then visit all of the armies of hell on his sorry, cowardly ass.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


If anything, Nate thought, Eliot looked in even worse shape that he had in the parking lot when they had first found him.

There were wires and tubes everywhere, from the ventilator helping him breathe to the digital chest drain in his side, allowing air, blood and other impurities from the pneumothorax between his damaged lung and his ribs to accumulate in a container beside the bed. The stuff looked foul. The unobtrusive bag hanging from the bed showed without doubt that Eliot was passing blood in his urine.

He was resting on his back, sheet drawn up over his bare chest, arms exposed, and there didn’t seem to be an inch of his skin that wasn’t bruised or cut.

Godalmighty, Nate thought. He looks dead already. And then he shook his head, as though doing so would dislodge the treacherous words from his mind. He hated hospitals, ever since the loss of his son, and seeing Eliot in this condition just brought the whole tragedy back in full, horrific detail.

But this time … this time, the patient would survive. So help him, Eliot would live through this.

Parker sat beside Eliot on the chair provided, avoiding the suspended bags of saline and other medication – which included the sedative keeping him in an unconscious state - and touched Eliot’s bruised face. He didn’t respond.

All that could be heard in the room was the rhythmic whoosh-click-click of the ventilator and the occasional beep of the heart monitor.

Hardison stood beside Eliot on the other side of the bed, Lizzie held in his left arm, staring down at his friend. Lizzie was uncharacteristically quiet, and she reached out her arms for Eliot to hold her. When he lay, silent and still, she turned dark, confused eyes to Hardison, who gave her a gentle squeeze.

“I know, baby-girl … I know. But he’ll be okay soon, I promise.” He looked again at Eliot, trying his best to study the bruising without emotion. He narrowed his eyes.

“What did that?”

A long, straight welt ran across Eliot’s right biceps.

“Brass knuckles,” said Toller, who leaned in the doorway, arms crossed, after showing the team into Eliot’s secluded room in the ICU. “There’s another one on his chest. That’s what drove the rib into his lung and broke another two.”

Sophie, who was searching through the cabinet beside Eliot’s bed, paused for a second.

“How do you know -“

Toller grimaced.

“After I left the army I worked for a while in a hospital in Los Angeles. When you’ve seen as much fall-out from gang violence as I have, you get to know the signs.”

Sophie found what she was looking for. Pulling out a cotton wool pad, she dampened it with a little water from the faucet in the small sink and leaned over Eliot.

“Now, Eliot, just wait a minute while I clean up your eye for you.” And oh-so-gently, she wiped crusted tears from Eliot’s swollen eye. “There now. Better?” She smiled softly at the unconscious man.

“He can’t hear you, Sophie!” Parker grumbled, trying to be as quiet as possible as thought any noise would disturb Eliot.

“Actually, it’s good for him to have people around him he knows,” Toller replied. “There’s evidence that when people are in an unconscious state, they can sense the world around them. Talk to him. Sit and read to him. Include him. If he likes music, play some. Can’t hurt, and you won’t do any harm. It might even help him heal if he knows he has his family around him.”

“Seriously?” Parker was intrigued. “Just … talk??”

“Sure,” Toller said. “I’m hoping to take him off the ventilator maybe tomorrow, and let him work with an oxygen mask, as he’s looking as though he’ll be breathing better on his own. We’ll see how he goes, okay?”

Nate ran his fingers through his hair, and sighed.

“Doc … you look all in. You don’t need to babysit us. Go home. We’ll be fine.”

Toller gave Nate a broad grin, tired though he was.

“No such luck. I’m back on shift. I have other patients, you know. Got kids in college to pay for,” he joked wryly.

Hardison glanced over at Toller’s weary face. Hmmm. He knew Toller was a widower with two sons in college –one in medical school and the other studying to be an ecologist - and a daughter serving with the marines in Afghanistan, and a surgeon’s wage in a non-profit hospital wasn’t that big. He knew, because he had accessed every piece of financial information about Toller twelve months before, when the team wasn’t sure about the doctor’s motives. Maybe he could do something about that, he thought. Toller had saved Eliot’s life twice now. They owed him big time. But in the meantime, he needed to find the assholes who had hurt Eliot.

He had an idea. He turned to Nate and handed over Lizzie, who was still a little subdued.

“Headin’ back to the brewpub, guys.” He held up a hand. “I’ll get a taxi an’ then bring Lucille back with me. Gonna talk to Sam an’ then maybe bring us some decent food. That hospital crap is … nasty.”

Nate was busy hugging his girl, needing the comfort she gave him, but he glanced at the hacker.

“Go, Hardison. Sophie and I will head home in an hour or so … try and get a couple of hours sleep and get Lizzie settled for a bit. Parker, are you okay to keep Eliot company for a little while?”

There was no answer. Parker was sitting by Eliot’s side, watching his face, as though by simply staring at him she could heal him.

“Parker? Parker!

“Huh?” Parker jerked as though being awoken from a doze.

“You okay to keep an eye on Eliot while we’re gone?”

Parker glanced at Nate and then Sophie, but her gaze was inevitably drawn back to Eliot’s battered features and his broken body.

“Sure. No problem.” Her hand reached out to rest on Eliot’s left hand, the one laden with a cannula and tubes and heavy bandages keeping it all in place. She still managed to curl a couple of fingers in his. “Hardison …”

The hacker looked up from retrieving his coat.

“Yeah, babe?”

Parker gazed at the hacker for a few moments, her face hard and set.

“You’re going to find them, aren’t you? The ones who did this. And break them.”

Hardison smiled grimly.

“And then some,” he answered. And then he was gone, his plan already worked out in his mind.


Parker sat quietly, listening to the rhythm of the room with all of its clicks and bleeps and whooshes, and watched the rise and fall of Eliot’s chest, the only hint that he was still in the land of the living.

After Nate and Sophie had headed home, a tired and grouchy Lizzie in Nate’s arms, she had left the room for a few minutes as two of the ICU nurses changed the soiled dressing on Eliot’s lower back, turning his body easily and quickly onto his left side so as not to disturb either the ventilator or the chest tube. Toller had left the incision open, allowing it to drain and relieve pressure on the compressed nerve, and as Parker peered through the glass door she had to hold back the sob that threatened to burst from her chest. She had never seen Eliot like this. Never. His sheer vulnerability scared her beyond belief.

When the nurses had finished and settled Eliot once more on his back, Parker was allowed back into his room to sit beside him. She had to watch over him. Protect him, like he had always protected all of them. But she had no idea what to do. This was entirely outside her life experience. Even when Eliot had been so badly hurt all those months ago, he had still managed to chase off a bear simply by growling at it. To see someone as strong as Eliot in so helpless a condition was unsettling at best.

So Parker did what Doctor Walt had told her they should do. She slipped her fingers once more into Eliot’s unresponsive hand, and began to talk.


Sam Setrakian had been hired by Eliot, and it showed. A big, gentle bear of a man, Sam was a retired Navy chief petty officer with twenty-five years’ service under his belt, a talent for handling customers and a gifted cook. He was also a keen fisherman, and he and Eliot sometimes took off for a couple of days to fish for bass.

Jesus,” he breathed as Hardison, sitting opposite him at a table in the brewpub, told him about Eliot.

“What did you see? Parker told me El was speakin’ to a couple over by the kitchen doors.”

Sam was still trying to take it all in. Eliot was a good friend.

“Um … not much. I can’t see that part of the room from the bar, so I only saw Eliot head over to talk to someone and then the guy leaving a couple of minutes later. Thinking about it,” he added, “the fella did look a little pissed.”

Okay … so far so good, Hardison thought.

“Can you remember them comin’ in … maybe servin’ them?”

“He ordered at the bar, I took the food over, and that’s about it.” Sam thought for a moment. “He did seem a bit of a prick, though. As if something had crawled up his ass and died.”

Hardison nodded. It was time to check the CCTV.

“The girl … you put her in a taxi, right? Which company did you use?”

“The usual. She was a shy little thing. I knew something was up, but didn’t know what. You know Eliot … he’s damn’ quiet at the best of times.” Sam pondered for a moment. “I know the driver. Want me to find out where he took her?”

“Yeah, thanks. It would help a lot,” Hardison murmured.

Sam seemed almost too scared to ask, but he did it anyway.

“Eliot … is it real bad? I mean … is he gonna make it?”

Hardison hesitated, and then nodded.

“Yeah. He’ll make it. He has to.”

The two men sat silently for a few moments, both of them lost in thought. Sam stirred first.

“You going straight back to the hospital? ‘Cause if you are, I’ll pack you guys some hot food. That crap they feed you in there isn’t fit for a goat. I’ll be by later to see him, if that’s okay?”

Hardison nodded, and smiled his thanks.

“That’d be great. I gotta go pack up some bits ‘n’ pieces an’ I’ll be down in thirty minutes. Is that enough time?”

Sam, pale but determined, grinned.

“Plenty. Want something for Lizzie too? Eliot has stuff put by for her.”

“Hell, yeah! He’ll kill us if we feed her any canned crap.”

Sam’s grin softened.

“Yeah … ain’t that the truth. Alec … look out for him, will you? For all of us. Is it okay if I tell the staff? They’ll want to know why he isn’t about. I’ll tell ‘em to steer clear of the hospital though – I guess you’ll want to watch his back until you figure out who did this.”

Hardison breathed a silent sigh of relief. Sam had a good grasp of things like this. Rubbing his tired eyes, he eased himself to his feet.

“Gotta get movin’. Thanks Sam.”

“No problem.” Sam stood and slapped Hardison gently on the shoulder. “I’ll have the food ready and waiting for you. Then you go find the bastard that did this.”


In the end it took less than twenty minutes for Hardison to find his travel case on wheels and load it up with the stuff he needed. Once it was all packed, he added a six-pack of orange soda, and three packs of gummy frogs for luck. Inspiration sometimes needed a gummy frog or two to kick-start the thought processes.

He was about to head downstairs to the dining area, when something occurred to him. Heading into Eliot’s office – and he knew Eliot was going to skin him alive for it – he rummaged through the drawers in Eliot’s desk and dug out the spare set of keys for his old truck.

After locking up the offices, he carefully carried his case downstairs and left it behind the bar. Wonderful smells were issuing from the kitchen, and Hardison’s stomach rumbled. But he had something else to do while Sam packed them an emergency food parcel.

Heading out to the parking lot, he unlocked Eliot’s truck and eased himself into the driver’s seat. Eliot took great care of his vehicle, and Hardison winced as he recalled the Great Slushie Disaster of 2009. It had taken Eliot months before he would let Hardison back in the damn’ thing.

Digging through the glove compartment, he pulled out several CDs of country rock music, and shoved them into the pocket of his jacket.

“Dang, Eliot – the things I do for you, m’man …” he muttered, and cringed at the idea of having to listen to the godawful racket. He smiled though, at the fact that Eliot actually had a CD player instead of a cassette player. Or even, heaven forbid, an 8-track. There was hope for the man yet. If he survived the next few days, Hardison thought, his good humour dissolving as he remembered the blood and the damage and … he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Now wasn’t the time to freak out. He had a job to do.

Easing out of the truck and locking it, Hardison then headed to the big lock-up garage where Lucille spent her days when she wasn’t being used by the team as a mobile base.

Once he had Lucille parked behind the brewpub in the dingy alley, he retrieved his case and loaded it into Lucille. Then Sam was there, a large insulated bag in hand from which emanated the aroma of deliciousness.

“Here you go – soup, Eliot’s chicken pot pie recipe, mashed potato, veggies and dessert. It should keep you going for a while. If you need anything … anything … call me. You understand?”

Hardison wished Eliot understood how many people cared about him.

“Thanks man. For everything.”

“Any time. And when I swing by the hospital this afternoon, I’ll have that information about the girl for you.”

Hardison nodded his gratitude, and clambered into Lucille, turned the key to start her big, powerful engine, and headed back to the hospital. Right now he needed to be with his brother. And he didn’t intend to leave Eliot’s side until he figured this mess out and tracked down the man who had damaged the family he loved.


When Nate, Sophie and Lizzie arrived at noon, they were stopped in their tracks as they entered Eliot’s room in the ICU.

Parker was sitting beside Eliot, socked feet up on the bed beside him, yammering on like a parakeet about the intricacies of the Chubb Ulysses 3-movement timelock system, while Hardison … well, he’d taken over the whole left-hand corner of the room.

Normally where spare seats and the small, built-in closet were situated, Hardison, with the addition of Eliot’s wheely-table and another little fixed-leg table he had purloined from goodness-knows-where, had set up Leverage International Hospital Division, complete with a small and compact set of triple monitors, his notebook, keypad and other equipment. There was even an orange soda beside him as he scrolled through what looked like CCTV footage of the brewpub. Nate had no idea how Hardison had managed to put so much electronic hoo-hah into such a tiny space, but he’d done it. He could work while staff took care of Eliot and his needs, and he wasn’t in the way. Job done.

Beside Eliot on his bedside cabinet was an insulated container, smelling wonderously of hot, home-cooked food. God, Nate thought, he was hungry!

Hardison swung around on the computer chair he had borrowed from Toller’s office, and looked at Nate.

“Great. You’re here. Sam sent food.” He gestured at the container. “While you’re eatin’, I’ll bring you up to speed. I’ve been goin’ through the brewpub security cameras, an’ I got somethin’. I don’t know if I can put it through the FBI automated FR system from here, but I can try.”

Nate looked at Sophie, and then at Eliot, who still lay unconscious in the bed. Was it his imagination, Nate thought, but did Eliot’s bruised and cut face look a little less stressed? The lines on his brow had smoothed out a little, despite the stitches in the cut at his hairline.

Sophie was highly amused.

“The hospital … the staff are okay with … this?” she waved at the gear and tables.

Hardison shrugged.

“They seem to be under the impression El’s a protected witness, you’re family an’ we’re FBI. Don’t know where they got that from.” Hardison kept his face carefully neutral as he gestured at the FBI ID on the desk beside him.

Nate grinned. “Special Agents Thomas and Hagen strike again, I presume.”

Hardison took the accolade with the solemnity it demanded and did a dinky little bow.

As Sophie sat Lizzie on the bed beside Eliot’s right hand so she could pat and play with his fingers, something she loved to do and which amused Eliot no end, Nate rubbed his hands together.

Yeah … the team was whole again. Eliot had his people around him, and he was safe, so he could heal and rest and they would be with him all the way.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s find this sonofabitch.”

 

To be continued …

 

 

Chapter Text


“See … just … here, Eliot’s walkin’ over to the table. Look how that asshole has a hold of that girl’s arm.” Hardison slowed everything down on the CCTV playback. “Eliot must’ve been watchin’ all this go down an’ just stepped in.” He glanced over at Eliot, watching his chest rise and fall to the push of the ventilator. “Damn him,” he added quietly, “he can’t bear to see kids … women … animals, hurt. For a man who can take down a gazillion ninjas with his little finger, he sure is one big softy wrapped up in a whole lotta bad attitude.”

Nate, working his way through a plastic plateful of Sam’s excellent chicken pot pie, peered over Hardison’s shoulder and watched as Eliot sauntered over to the young man twisting the girl’s wrist, offer what appeared to be a handshake. He winced as Eliot nearly wrenched the man’s arm out of its socket and put unbearable pressure on the nerves in the arrogant young man’s shoulder.

“Can you make out what he’s saying?” Nate asked, scraping his plastic fork around for the last bit of mashed potato.

“Nope – but you can bet your last dime it ain’t anythin’ we could repeat in front of Lizzie.”

Nate nodded.

“We need to talk to that girl. Sam’s tracking her down for us, is that right?”

“Yeah. He’ll be by soon to see Eliot, and he said he’d have the address.” Hardison rubbed his hand over his hair and shook his head. “There’re no cameras in the parking lot and even if there were, the light’s so goddamn poor we wouldn’t be able to see much. However,” he added, holding up a finger, “I had a bit more luck with the cameras outside the brewpub lookin’ north. I ran the recordings from when that nasty little bugger left the brewpub to when Eliot left. An’ guess what I found?”

Hardison brought up a street view and ran it forward for a minute or so, and then slowed it down to half normal speed.

“This is thirty-two minutes before Eliot left. We close the brewpub about then, so these guys …” he pointed at three big, brawny men joining another standing across the street from the brewpub entrance, “turned up. Watch the one in the middle.”

Nate squinted. The biggest of them pulled something from his jacket pocket and slipped it onto his right hand. Nate’s lip curled in disgust.

“Brass knuckles.”

Hardison raised his eyebrows in agreement.

“The problem is, the street lighting ain’t what it should be an’ I can’t get a fix on their faces. But this one,” he indicated the slender man who had waited for his compatriots’ arrival, “I’m pretty sure is the dung-beetle Eliot squished in the brewpub.”

“There were four of them?” Parker asked. Normally four men would be nothing to Eliot Spencer, but having a one-inch piece of metal in his back suddenly pressing on a nerve, and he had been compromised right from the start.

“They head towards the parkin’ lot, an’ that’s where we lose ‘em. I’ve tried all the cameras on this side of the block, thinkin’ I might catch ‘em from another angle, but … no luck. Sorry, man,” Hardison murmured, more for Eliot’s benefit than any of the others.

Sophie joined Nate, Lizzie resting on her hip, and watched Hardison re-run the footage. She shook her head as though trying to remember something.

“That rotten little toe-rag … he seems familiar but I can’t place him.” She frowned. Damn … no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t remember where she had seen him before. “That girl, she’s not there by choice. Her whole body language screams ‘fear’. Trying to draw her arms back to her body … lips pulled back, eyes wide … she’s scared, and not of Eliot.”

But they were all interrupted by the nurses arriving to run through Eliot’s checks and replace the dressing on his back, so the team left them to it just as Sam arrived.

The big man’s grey eyes widened as he peered through the glass door at Eliot’s lax body as the nurses did their job quickly and efficiently. Dragging his eyes away from his friend, he handed a piece of paper to Hardison.

“Sarah Rafferty. An address in Milwaukie. My friend the taxi driver said she looked terrified the whole trip, kept looking out of the back window as if she was being followed. He’s got a bit of a hinky past, if you know what I’m saying – he knows when he’s being followed, and there was no tail.” His eyes drifted back to Eliot. “How … how’s he doin’?”

Nate rested a hand on Sam’s broad shoulder as they all trooped back into Eliot’s room, each of them touching Eliot’s hand or arm, reinforcing their presence in his life.

“Holding his own. The doc’s hoping he’ll be off the ventilator soon.” He turned to Hardison. “Find out what you can about her, and then first thing tomorrow, I think it’s time Special Agents Thomas and Hagen visited Ms Rafferty, don’t you?”

Hardison’s feral grin crept onto his face, and he looked at Parker, who frowned.

“I can’t leave Eliot … he needs me, Nate. Doctor Walt says I have to talk to him –“

Sam, who had no idea who Agents Thomas and Hagen were but suspected that they really didn’t exist, interrupted.

“I’ll sit with him. I’ll come by around lunchtime and spell Nate and I can talk to him, if you like. I’d appreciate being able to help out,” he added, eyebrows raised hopefully. “I’ll ask Joe to cover for me at the brewpub.”

Joe was an ex-US Marine, and Nate had a fleeting thought that Eliot probably had all of these ex-military guys stuffed in the basement ready to step in if he wasn’t able to protect his team.

Hardison touched Sam’s arm and then slipped a CD into the player plugged into his laptop.

“Thanks man,” he said in relief, “Nate’ll be monitorin’ us an’ Soph has Lizzie to look out for, so that’d be cool. I’m gonna put on some music for Eliot too, so … y’know, he can figure out we’re lookin’ out for him an’ keepin’ him settled in his head.”

Nate raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. He had another thought, this time of Eliot having to listen to whatever weird form of techy music that inhabited Hardison’s geeky noggin, but he was very surprised when he heard Garth Brooks singing something about burning bridges and the music softened to background level, warm and comforting. The tension in the room eased considerably.

Sam settled himself down beside Eliot’s bed and frowned just for a moment, even as he watched his unconscious friend.

“Y’know … I have no idea what you people even do,” he said, mystified.

Parker just grinned.


Hardison was swaying. His eyes were closed, and he was waving his hands in front of him, at one with Garth Brooks as he sang about thunder in a woman’s heart, feelin’ the beat and wishing Eliot was able to complain about him ruinin’ good music with a ‘Dammit, Hardison!’ as the hacker hummed tunelessly along to a song he’d never heard before.

He was busy running information checks on Sarah Rafferty, and so far he had found out she was twenty-seven years old, was an accountant’s assistant and had had several parking tickets, all of which she had paid promptly. She also had a cat named Pickles, liked crunchy peanut butter not smooth, and had a small but untouched savings account into which she dutifully paid a percentage of her wages every month. So far, so squeaky-clean. Now he was looking into her family connections, but his babies were taking their time, battling the hospital’s slow wi-fi, so he let the music take him.

He smiled as he swayed, and he opened his eyes and looked at his unconscious friend. When Eliot was well again, Hardison decided, he would have one helluva fun driving Eliot into a hissy-fit about how he luuuuurved Garth Brooks and how he and Eliot should do some manly bonding an’ have a country an’ western evenin’ in the brewpub an’ –

Huh.

Eliot’s right arm now rested on his stomach.

He looked at Parker. Nope. She hadn’t moved Eliot’s arm. She was asleep on the chair beside Eliot, head back, mouth open, drooling slightly and snoring quietly.

Sam was long gone and wouldn’t be back until the following afternoon, and Nate and Sophie had been told by both Hardison and Parker to take their weary daughter home for the night. So they had disappeared about two hours ago. The nurses hadn’t been by for their check for a while, and last time Hardison had looked – just a few minutes ago – Eliot’s arm had lain still at his side.

It was then Hardison noticed that the rhythm of the room had changed.

Switching off the music, he listened carefully.

The ventilator hummed its monotonous song. Whoosh-click-clickwhoosh-click-click … whoosh … click … whoosh … and then nothing for about three breaths, and then it began again … whoosh … nothing … whoosh-click-clickwhoosh

Hardison pressed the emergency button, waking up Parker with a start. What was going on?? There was something terribly wrong with Eliot

But the nurses and the doctor on call for the evening were suddenly there, alerted by the changing rhythm on their monitoring equipment.

The doctor checked Eliot’s blood pressure, heart rate and then his pupil response, flicking a light in each of Eliot’s blue eyes. Then the tension in the young doctor’s shoulders relaxed and he turned to Hardison, who was frozen into terrified immobility, and smiled.

Wassgoin’on???” Parker mumbled, still blinking herself awake.

“He’s fighting the ventilator,” the doctor said. “He wants to breathe on his own and it’s bugging him.”

Hardison, relieved beyond belief, smiled shakily.

“Yeah … well … it don’t take much to make Eliot all kinds of angry, even when he’s out like a light. If it moves, he’ll fight it if it pisses him off. Eliot Rule Number Three.”

The doctor nodded, grinning.

“Walt said he was a fighter. Good … that’s good. I’ll run it past Walt, but I think we can take him off the ventilator. He’s ready to breathe on his own. We’ll probably reduce the sedation too, as the incision is draining nicely and the swelling, although bad, isn’t increasing. He’s showing signs of subconsciously fighting the sedation as well. He’s a tough one,” he added. Then he thought for a moment and just had to ask. “What’re rules number one and two?”

“Number One … family,” Parker said, her hand back in Eliot’s. “To protect his family … his team … at all costs.”

The doctor looked at the man lying on the bed, bruised and beaten. No … not beaten. Just subdued. For now. Despite the bruises and cuts, Eliot Spencer looked like a slumbering wolf.

“And number two?”

Hardison grinned, happy beyond belief. Eliot was winning. But then, he always did.

“Eliot Rule Number Two … never, ever, touch him while he’s sleeping.”

The doctor’s eyes narrowed.

“Well, good job he’s sedated then.”

“Hmmm …” Hardison was thoughtful, eyebrows raised. “You’d think so, huh,” he said innocently.

The doctor swallowed nervously.


Sarah Rafferty was small, timid, and obviously frightened out of her wits.

She sat on the neat little couch in the tidy living room in the orderly little house in the Portland suburbs on a dull, drizzly morning, and stared at the tall young black man in the black suit and tie and crisp whiter-than-white shirt sitting on the chair opposite her. He was with the FBI, his badge said, and he was accompanied by a tough-looking young blonde woman wearing an identical suit but with an added pair of dark glasses hiding her eyes. She stood silently behind her colleague, hands clasped in front of her. She hadn’t said a word so far.

“So … Ms Rafferty … we need to know about the altercation the night before last at the Bridgeport Brewery.” This Special Agent Thomas sounded very, very serious. “Who were you with?”

Sarah’s dark eyes widened.

“W … why?”

“For god’s sake, Sarah, jus’ tell ‘em, will you?”

Her best friend Lavonne, in whose house she was staying, folded her arms as she stood beside Sarah, exasperation in every syllable.

“But –“

“He cain’t hurt you, girl – he don’t know you’re here. Just tell ‘em the damn’ truth, will ya??” Lavonne grumbled testily.

Sarah persisted, though.

“Why do you need to know??”

Hardison had the story off-pat, about a sting operation and Eliot being an undercover agent and –

“It’s classified!” barked Special Agent Hagen, her face impassive.

Hardison sighed. Okay. It was obvious he had to go with the flow.

“Please, Ms. Rafferty. It’s important.”

There was silence in the room for a moment or two, and then Sarah sighed shakily.

“Danny McCallister,” she whispered.

Hardison blinked in surprise.

“No … can’t be. McCallister’s in his late fifties –“

“Danny McCallister Junior,” Sarah reiterated, her voice showing just a little sign of irritation.

Hardison thought for a moment or two, running the information through his mental computer.

“Never knew there was a junior,” he said quietly.

“No, well, you probably don’t. Senior keeps him under wraps.” Lavonne said, feeling more able to say what she wanted. “Creepy lil’ shit’s spoiled rotten but his daddy don’t trust him in the family business,” she continued. “He’s small time, loan’sharkin’, that sorta thing. Likes to beat up on homeless folks with his cruddy sidekicks jus’ for fun. Tell him ‘bout your brother, girl.”

Sarah sat silently, her face pale. Lavonne sighed.

“Sarah’s bro’s always been into trouble-makin’ … jus’ little stuff … stealin’, pickpocketin’ … never any good. Sorry girl, but he ain’t,” she added apologetically to Sarah, who was turning crimson with embarrassment.

Hardison nodded.

“We know about your brother, Ms. Rafferty. What does this have to do with Junior?” he asked.

Sarah sighed.

“My brother … he, um … he had some financial difficulties, and I refused to bail him out any more. So … he went to Danny. Borrowed five hundred dollars from him. Not exactly a fortune, is it?” She added bitterly. “Of course, he didn’t pay it back. Danny found out about me. For some reason he decided if I … went with him … my brother’s debt was cancelled. If I didn’t … my brother would be dead within a day.”

So that was it. She had given herself to the son of the notorious Danny McCallister to save her brother, and Eliot, perceptive man that he was, recognised the signs of abuse immediately. Hardison also knew Sarah Rafferty’s brother was long-gone, effectively abandoning his sister to McCallister. Bastard.

“We need his usual hang-outs, addresses, contact details … everything you have,” Hardison said gently.

“You … you can stop him?” Sarah asked, hope suddenly in her voice.

“Yes,” Parker said. “We’ll stop him. For good,” she added, venom in her voice. He was going to pay, she vowed silently.

“Ms Rafferty … we will find him and bring him to justice,” Hardison answered, “but we want you safe too.” He pulled an envelope from his inside pocket. “Here. In return for your information, we’re putting you somewhere safe for a little while. There’s a ‘plane ticket, location of a safe house and some money to keep you going for a while. Courtesy of the FBI. And don’t worry - we’ll be watching you, and your employers will be dealt with.”

Sarah just stared at him, wide-eyed.

Seriously?

Hardison nodded soberly.

“Yes ma’am,” he replied.

Sarah looked up at Lavonne, and made her decision.

“Lavonne, I need paper and a pencil,” she said, her heart lighter than it had been for a long, long time.


The trip back to the hospital in the lunchtime traffic gave Hardison time to think. He knew Sarah Rafferty would be safe, and he also knew he needed to do plenty of digging into this Danny McCallister Junior. He knew about Senior. Oh yes indeed.

Danny McCallister Senior, a self-made businessman with fingers in many, many kinds of pies, including insider-trading in his legitimate businesses, but nothing had ever been proven. His more shadowy pursuits included whispers of illegal gambling, prostitution and even the odd drug-running escapade, although he dealt more with medicines and vaccines rather than controlled substances.

Hardison had brought a photograph of Senior up on his cell-phone, and thought about the face he had perused for a few moments before getting into Lucille.

It was a lined, lived-in face, interesting if you liked that sort of thing, with a curious scar that ran from the corner of his mouth to his ear. He smiled easily, which made the scar crease into a weird extension of the expression, but the eyes were hard … slate grey with flinty specks that shone out of the image.

Hardison let the face of Senior impinge on his mind as he parked Lucille in the hospital parking lot and with Parker by his side, headed into the building straight to Eliot’s room.

But Eliot was gone.

And so was Hardison’s equipment.

Oh Jesus.

Parker, who didn’t deal well with situations like this when it concerned her family, let out a small, terrified wail of distress.

“Where is he? Where’s Eliot?? Oh god, Hardison … where is he? What have they done to him? Is he –“

“Wait here!”

Hardison back-tracked to the nursing station, and was tremendously relieved when he saw Nate heading towards him, hands up in a placatory gesture.

“It’s okay, Hardison … Eliot’s fine. They’ve just moved him –“

Parker was suddenly in Nate’s way, her eyes stormy with fury.

“Nate!!! Why didn’t you call us and let us know! I thought he was dead, Nate! I thought Eliot was gone!!

She poked Nate firmly – and not a little maliciously – in the belly, making Nate grunt with the pain of it. Hardison had to wince along with him. How Eliot put up with Parker’s poking habits was beyond him.

Nate wheezed a little but dealt with it, and grasped Parker by the shoulders, preventing any more poking.

“They’ve only just moved him, Parker! I didn’t have time to call you guys. He’s in a room on the next floor … and he’s off the ventilator,” he finished triumphantly.

Parker’s face suddenly transformed into radiant sunshine. She beamed, her fears forgotten.

“Where???”

Nate grinned.

“C’mon.”


The room was quiet, airy and free of the intense clutter of machinery which by necessity had inhabited the ICU. Sophie and Sam were busy setting up Hardison’s tiny home-from-home computer base, and Lizzie was ensconced beside Eliot, the protective side-rail raised to prevent her from moving very far. But she was too busy playing with Eliot’s fingers, her tiny face scrunched up in concentration.

Parker couldn’t believe how much better Eliot looked. His face, no longer marred by the ventilator tube and his nose and mouth covered by an oxygen mask, was more relaxed despite the battering his features had taken. The suspended bag of plasma was gone, and the nurses had raised his torso to help his breathing by cranking up the upper section of the bed. Now, Parker thought, he looked asleep instead of dying.

Sophie looked up from helping Sam connect cables.

“Well? Who is he?”

Hardison turned from resting a hand gently on Eliot’s shoulder, reassuring himself that Eliot was indeed still with them.

“The target’s name is Danny McCallister Junior.”

There was a sharp intake of breath from Sophie.

“I knew I’d seen him before, the little sod!” She exclaimed quietly. “His father was being interviewed on television because of a so-called accident on a building project he was financing, and that little prick was standing beside him. I recognise the sneer.” She added, grimacing.

“Danny McCallister,” Nate murmured. This was going to be tougher than he had originally thought. “A whole new can of worms, people. He’s powerful, nasty and vindictive. I’ve had an eye on him for years, but never had the opportunity to chase him up. Maybe … maybe this is our chance.”

“He’s dangerous, Nate. I mean … really dangerous,” Sam said as he switched the techy gear on at the power socket. “Can you folks really even begin to think about taking him down?”

Nate shrugged.

“We’ve tackled worse.”

“Yes,” Sophie said, “but we’ve played it very close and more often than not, we’ve taken huge risks doing it. Now we have Lizzie and there is no way in hell I’m going to put her in the way of this man.”

Nate had to agree.

“So … Junior. We need to know more about him. What did the girl tell you?”

Hardison pulled out the scribbled notes Sarah Rafferty had given him.

“He’s nasty, Nate, but in a different way from dear ol’ Dad. Spiteful. If he has an itch, he scratches it. His father keeps him away from his business interests ‘cause he ain’t able to keep himself under control. He resents his father, but can’t do without him.”

That sounded promising, Nate thought.

“Okay, Hardison – boot up your gear and find us everything you can about him.”

“And then we skin him alive,” Parker muttered. “Or stretch him on something, preferably with razor blades in it. Or … or we could impale him, couldn’t we? Ooh-ooh, how about that thing the old English kings used to do with hanging and gutting and cutting people into bits –“

Lizzie suddenly broke into gales of laughter, burbling to herself, and everyone turned to where she sat next to Eliot and leaned gently against his hip.

Her hands were caught by Eliot’s fingers, and she thought that was absolutely hilarious.

A croaky, raw voice, slurred by weariness and medication, crept out from beneath the oxygen mask.

“Could … could you people keep the damn’ noise down … ‘m tryin’ … tryin’ to die quietly over here. Show … show some consideration, will ya?”

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


 

Everything hurt.

Eliot’s chest felt as though someone – probably Hardison – had parked Lucille on it. He couldn’t see much out of his left eye, his ribs were on fire and his back … god, his back … felt as though it had had the shit kicked out of it. Which, if his admittedly foggy memory served him correctly, had been exactly what had happened to him. His kidneys ached like a sonofabitch, and he felt a bone-deep bruise on his hip.

But then he had to correct himself … his right leg didn’t hurt, so not quite everything was causing him discomfort. It felt funny … numb in bits and tingly in others … he tried to focus on his toes and got nothing. In fact, it was as if his right foot had been painlessly lopped off. No movement, no feeling, no nothing. Nada.

Eliot, still woozy, idly wondered if he could do his job with one of those fancy prosthetic feet Paralympian runners had. Hell, they could run faster than he could, so he reckoned that with a bit of work he could do it. Maybe.

Oh, what the hell. He was too damn tired and too damn sore to care right now, and he could hear his team around him, distant murmurs of voices, all with smiles in them soaked in care and affection and all of that family … stuff … he found so disconcerting.

But there was something else. He felt tiny hands in his, patting at the fingers even as he caught them as he always did, making her laugh. Lizzie’s bubbling giggles took away the fear and dulled the incessant ache, and he could feel her tiny body against his side as he lay hurting and beaten in this goddamn hospital bed. His best girl was here, and her babble and cheery personality soothed his aching head and settled his battered soul.

“'Lizbeth Grace …” Eliot’s voice sounded like a crow with laryngitis. “She okay?” he grated out from beneath the oxygen mask, the sheer effort of speaking exhausting him. He winced as the split in his lip stung.

Opening his good eye was just too much effort, so he just tried to relax and listen to his team as they gathered beside his bed.

“She’s fine,” Sophie’s voice was soft with concern. “She’s been missing you though. Couldn’t understand why you weren’t catering to her every whim like you usually do and just lying there like the proverbial sack of potatoes,” she added, warmth in every word.

Well, that was understandable, Eliot thought. A concern struck him.

“You feedin’ … feedin’ her right?? I left stuff for her.”

“Made sure of it,” Sam said. Sam? What was Sam doin’ here? He was supposed to be takin’ care of the brewpub an’ makin’ sure Hardison didn’t mess with his menus. He felt a big hand rest on his right shoulder. “Don’t worry, Eliot … Joe’s keeping an eye on things,” Sam continued. The ex-CPO knew all about Spencer-type paranoia when it came to menus.

His anxiety level settled down a little, and he felt the morphine pump push a little pain relief into his system. No … no, that wouldn’t do. He gently extricated his right arm from Lizzie’s tenacious grasp and aimed it in the general direction of the cannula in his left hand. Morphine meant dull fuzziness and nausea, and he detested both feelings with a vengeance. Pain he could deal with, but morphine? Hateful stuff.

“Whoa, whoa, no you don’t, El! Leave it alone!”

Eliot felt Hardison carefully bat his hand away and tried a weak snarl but failed miserably.

Dammit, Hardison!” he rasped, fogging the mask for a second or two, and he had no idea how much the epithet soothed the hearts of his friends.

“Man, you gotta leave it alone, okay?” Hardison sounded jittery. “Just for a little while. Listen …” he added, “you got stay still an’ you can’t rest if you’re in pain, so live with it for now, will ya?” Hardison paused as though wondering if he should continue.

“Tell him,” Nate said, his hand resting on Eliot’s left shoulder, hoping to keep the hitter in the damn bed.

“Tell me what?” Eliot finally managed to pry his good eye open, and was relieved to see his team around him as well as Sam, a little blurry but all present, correct and safe. He eased his head sideways a little and brought Hardison’s worried face into focus.

Hardison held up something shiny that gleamed in the light and then pressed it into Eliot’s palm and folded his fingers over it.

“Careful, man … it’s sharp.”

Eliot slowly managed to wangle the piece of metal into his fingers and held it up so that he could see it.

“Huh,” he said. “Is … is that what I think it is?”

“Doc had to take it out of your back or you’d be crippled at best or probably dead as a doornail.” Hardison explained. “You have to be as still as you can so the incision can drain properly.”

Eliot managed to raise an eyebrow.

“Didn’t … jeez … didn’t have to take m’damn foot off as well,” he muttered as his wounds twinged despite the morphine.

“Foot?”

Parker, delighted her big brother was back with them, frowned, puzzled. “You don’t have a foot?” And before anyone could stop her, she pulled the bedclothes out of the bottom of the bed and stared.

“Nope. Still two feet,” she said with relief. She tweaked Eliot’s big toes. To everyone’s surprise he stifled a pained giggle. Eliot didn’t giggle. He didn’t have the genetic capability to giggle, or so it was generally thought by the team. Parker smiled with childish delight. Eliot was ticklish! Parker ran a finger down the sole of his left foot and was thrilled when Eliot’s foot jerked and his toes curled, and he huffed in pain and wheezed another embarrassing giggle. Before anyone could stop her, Parker did it again, this time to his right foot.

Nothing. No reaction at all.

Eyes wide, she glanced at the rest of her friends and laid her hand on the top of Eliot’s foot, feeling the warmth of life but worried now at the lack of a reaction.

“Can you feel that?” she asked, squeezing his foot hard.

“Feel what?” Eliot replied, still trying to recover from the whole unfamiliar giggling thing. He suddenly felt alarm echo in his head.

“Your … your foot …” Parker stumbled over her words, not sure what to do.

“It’s called neuropathy,” Toller said as he stood in the doorway. “All that swelling and inflammation around the femoral nerve and its leader is pinching the site and until that reduces, I don’t expect Eliot to feel a whole lot in his leg and foot. I hope to see some improvement over the next few days.”

“Hey, Doc,” Eliot said, his voice a little shaky. Although he would never admit it, all of this information was becoming a little overwhelming.

The rest of the team murmured greetings to the little doctor, and Sam introduced himself.

“Ah,” said Toller. “The family grows,” and before Sam could explain he was just a bartender, Toller shook his hand and then gestured to everyone to sit down. He checked Eliot’s vitals and smiled at the hitter.

“It’s good to see you awake, my friend. How do you feel?”

Lizzie gazed up at Toller from her place beside Eliot, and giggled as Toller chucked her nose with a forefinger.

“I hope you’re looking after him, young lady,” he said softly. “He needs you, you know.”

Lizzie gently patted Eliot’s side, and grasped his fingers after Eliot handed the metal fragment back to Hardison and managed to curl his arm around the child next to him.

“M’okay, Doc. Thanks for takin’ that thing out of my back an’ patchin’ me up. Again,” he added with a hint of a sleepy growl. “When c’n I get outta here?”

Man, Hardison thought, even hefty painkillers didn’t stop a loopy Eliot from fixatin’ on his next Great Escape. Steve McQueen had nothing on Eliot Spencer when he was planning a breakout.

“You stay put!” Parker ordered firmly. “You are not going anywhere until Doctor Walt says you can. You’re all beat up and you can’t move and you need to heal and … and … you’re just … you don’t move!!

“Parker’s right, Eliot,” Sophie said. “This time, you do as you’re told. We can’t keep an eye on you and find the people who did this at the same time. You’re safer here. We’re here, we’re around, and we have everything we need in this room – including you.”

“You need help with this one,” Nate added. “This isn’t something you walk off, Eliot. No holing up and taping up the broken ribs and growling your way out of it. This time you don’t do it alone.”

“ … and that’s what we’re here for, El. We need you back on your feet, m’man, but it’s gonna take work an’ patience and a whole lot less growlin’ an’ threats an’ general bad-ass Eliot-ness, okay? Trust us, Eliot. We got your back – if you’ll excuse the pun.”

“I’ll take care of the brewpub and the menus,” Sam added. "So you have nothing to worry about except healing up as good as new.”

Damn, thought Eliot. They had him cornered.

He sighed as deeply as he could with a tube in his side draining fluid from his chest and a damn mask on his face, and gave a tiny nod.

“There … there were four of ‘em,” he whispered. “Brass knuckles.” His lips twisted into a tiny grimace. “I broke the elbow of one of ‘em,” he added with satisfaction. “The only one I recognised was –“

“- a man named Danny McAllister Junior, yes we know,” Nate interjected. “He was the man you saved Sarah Rafferty from in the brewpub that night. He came back for you.”

Eliot snorted and wished he hadn’t when pain shot through his ribs and side. He should have known his team would be well on the way to finding out what they needed about the terrified young woman and the moron who had hurt her that night.

Lizzie yawned noisily and leaned heavily against Eliot’s arm, and he instinctively held her close. She snuggled into his chest and closed her eyes, and Eliot could feel her tiny body slump instantly into sleep.

“McAllister …” Eliot murmured, his own desperate need to sleep tugging at him even as Lizzie slumbered bonelessly beside him. “Any … any relation to –“

“Yeah,” Nate said softly, seeing Eliot struggling to stay awake. “Son of. You sure know how to pick ‘em,” he added. Eliot’s good eye blinked slowly and drifted closed, and his pained breathing eased finally into the gentle rhythm of rest and healing. “Trust you to screw with the asshole son of the biggest badass in Portland,” Nate whispered to himself. And, he knew, none of the team would want Eliot any other way.


“Okay, here we go,” Hardison said softly. “Gotta be quiet, people – don’ wanna wake the sleepin’ beauties over there –“ he gestured at Eliot and Lizzie, both out of it for the next couple of hours, “- an’ meet Danny McAllister Senior.”

He had turned the triple screens around so everyone could see, and that included Toller, now tucking into a decent meal of baked ziti and a ham and arugala salad brought by Sam to support and feed what he now regarded as his team.

Danny McAllister’s scarred visage graced the screen, the strange smile oddly charming with a decidedly sinister edge.

“Born 1961, Laurieston, Glasgow, Scotland, in the Gor … Gorb … is that even a place?“ Hardison was obviously struggling.

“Stop!” Sophie said quietly but with great exasperation. “Hardison – sit down for a minute. I’ll take this.” She and Hardison swapped seats and Sophie looked at Hardison’s notes on his tablet. “Oh, for goodness sake … right.” She sighed. “Laurieston, part of the Gorbals in Glasgow – and that’s Glasgow as in owe not Glasgow as in cow. Can’t you Americans say anything properly?” she added waspishly. “He was raised in the Gorbals – once regarded as the most dangerous place in Britain. Sixties and seventies … the old slums being torn down, replaced by blocks of flats –“ she corrected herself, mindful of her colonial audience,”- apartments that did nothing to cure the problems.”

She turned to the image on the screen.

“Danny’s a product of the old-fashioned, really nasty Gorbals razor gangs. His dad was a petty criminal and he raised Danny to be the same.” She gestured at the scar on McAllister’s face. “See that? It’s called a ‘Glasgow Smile,’ usually done with a bottle or razor. Danny got it in his teens before he headed Stateside for a new life.”

“Sounds a charmer,” Toller said as he savoured the plateful of pasta. “God, this is good! Beats the canteen food hands-down!”

Hardison smiled at Sam, who was delighted.

“Doc, if you ever want a good meal, come down to the Bridgeport Brewery. You got free food for life, man.” His face sobered. “We owe you. Big time,” he added.

Toller grinned his thanks around a mouthful of delicately flavoured ziti, redolent with cheese and herbs. It was wonderful.

So,” Sophie continued, “interruptions aside –“ she glared at Hardison, “McAllister ended up in Portland. Unlike his father he was shrewd … a clever operator, with a hard head for business. He was involved in union politics – his Glasgow contacts helped him out – and he’s used a combination of bribery, shady business dealings and downright thuggery to get where he is today. He likes people to think he’s a tough but straight-dealing businessman. He’s acquired a bit of polish through the years, but underneath he’s still the street-brat from the slums of Glasgow.”

“So … Junior’s a chip off the old block, then?” Nate asked, intrigued.

“Nope,” Hardison said. “Much worse.” He turned around in his chair to face his team. “His daddy has some restraint. Not Junior. His mamma was the only thing Senior ever loved. She died of cancer when Junior was eight, an’ Senior spoiled the crap out of him. Probably ‘cause he looks so much like his mamma. Junior’s a straight-up, certifiable, dyed-in the-wool-honest-to-god psycho-nutcase looney tune. No self-restraint, no sense of right or wrong.”

Hardison brought up a picture of Danny McAllister Junior. He was dark haired, blue-eyed, handsome in a slightly debauched way, even at the age of twenty-seven. His smile had his father’s charm but even in this still image, he somehow gave out the sense of something wrong … something rotten to the core.

“Ideas, people?” Nate asked, somewhat subdued.

“We’re going to have to be careful,” Parker said as she sat by Eliot’s side, his bruised hand held once more in her gentle grasp, and she spoke so softly that Hardison had to strain to make out the words. “If he’s so twisted … we have Eliot and Lizzie to think about. Neither of them can be targets, Nate. Eliot’s too hurt this time to protect any of us, especially Lizzie. This Danny is the kind of person who would go after them if he found out about them, just to cover his ass. I can’t let that happen. I won’t,” she added, the passion and anger rife in her voice.

“Then … then don’t go after them,” came Eliot’s voice, slurring weakly out from beneath the mask. “Can’t risk … can’t risk ‘Lizbeth Grace. I can’t … can’t protect her an’ I … I won’t put her in the way of danger jus’ … jus’ ‘cause of me …”

“You’re supposed to be asleep, Eliot!” Parker hissed quietly, trying not to wake Lizzie, who snuffled a little and then snuggled back into Eliot’s chest. “Stupid! Rest!” she ordered, looking for somewhere on Eliot she could poke ever-so-carefully, but she discovered there wasn’t anywhere sufficiently un-bruised to do so. She settled for carefully tucking his hair back from the stitched cut on his forehead.

Eliot gave her a twisted, painful smile, and turned his head carefully to take in his team.

“It’s not worth it, Nate. Don’t do this … can’t risk it … I can live with it. Please ... jus' … let it go.”

Nate saw the calmness in Eliot’s one good eye, and knew in his heart that Eliot was right – he’d live with it, and probably not let the cause of his predicament bother him too much.

But he also knew that Junior had stepped over the mark once too often, and whatever restraint his father had provided was long gone. It wouldn’t be long until he killed someone. He had almost killed Eliot.

He looked at Sophie and Hardison and raised his eyebrows in a silent query.

But it was Sam who answered, still staring at Junior’s image on the screen.

“You know he won’t stop, don’t you? This guy’s a whacko. He has a taste for violence. He likes inflicting pain. I saw a marine like that in the navy, once. Charming but unbalanced. Ended up killing a recruit because the kid told him he thought tattoos were stupid. How the navy shrinks didn’t pick up on it I don’t know, but it was damn’ tragic. So … this little shit needs stopping.” He took a breath. “I can at least keep an eye on Eliot and Lizzie. I know how to take care of myself – maybe not anywhere near Eliot’s standards, but I have a bit of experience.”

Nate nodded, thinking it through.

“Sam … can’t let you, buddy … please … don’t risk yourself for me …” Eliot rasped.

Sam grinned.

“Not doing it for you, dumb-ass. It’s for the kiddo.” He gestured with his chin at Lizzie, who was oblivious and snoring.

“Nate, I have an idea,” Hardison said, chewing on a gummy frog. Gummy frogs were great for mental stimulation. “How about … okay … um … how about if I can bring down Junior without ever leavin’ this room? Without us really bein’ in contact with him at all?

Sophie’s eyes glittered.

“Now, that sounds like a plan,” she said, a smile forming on her face.

“Can you do that??” Toller asked, fascinated. He had to admit all of this drama was beginning to turn him into an adrenaline junkie.

Hardison shrugged.

“Gimmee some time to think it out, but … yeah, pretty much. We don’t have a time scale on this, so while El does as he’s told and heals up I can work us up a plan.”

There was a crotchety half-baked growl from the bed, muffled by the mask, but Eliot was ignored, even by Parker, who thought the idea could work even if she didn’t get to crawl through a few air vents.

Nate checked out the faces of these people he held most dear, and grinned.

“Okay, people – let’s go steal a psychopath!”

 

To be continued …

 

Chapter Text


Eliot slept for fourteen hours straight.

He slept through his medical checks, and the sound of Hardison working his way through Eliot’s CD collection. He slumbered through a petty argument between Sophie and Nate about how they were going to access Junior’s very expensive and flashy cell phone, and slept all through the removal of the chest drain in his side and the oxygen mask from his face.

He also slept through Lizzie having a rare hissy-fit when her mother decided to move her from Eliot’s side while the doctor removed the chest tube and stitched the incision. Hardison tried Eliot’s holding-up-a-finger-to-stop-the-noise thing, but it didn’t work. Lizzie just stared at him for a moment as though he was deranged, and then carried on screaming angrily, the noise hitting everyone’s inner ear and making them wince. Eliot didn’t even twitch.

He dreamt a lot though. His nightmares were aided and abetted by the morphine, and his agitation worried Parker to distraction because she was the one who made it her job to deal with the stress and trauma he put himself through. She knew he slept easier when one of his team had a hand on his arm or in Parker’s case, tucked between his fingers.

When one of the nurses brought a couple of sleeping pills for Eliot, explaining to Parker that they would help him rest more easily and her hand reaching out to rouse the troubled man, Parker just frowned, puzzled. Eliot didn’t need more drugs.

“Do you really want to die???” she said, genuinely confused, and just rubbed her thumb against Eliot’s scarred knuckles, her touch doing more to settle the hitter than all the sleeping pills in the world could do.

The nurse, a tough customer who had worked for many years in Cook County Hospital in Chicago and could quell a violent drug dealer with one raise of an eyebrow, backed off. The young woman with the helter-skelter-scary-eyes who hovered over Eliot like a sweet blonde Rottweiler made her uneasy, despite what Toller had told her about their kindness. These people were … not right in the head. Any of them.

When Eliot finally surfaced it was from the dregs of a disturbing dream, a confused melange of faces and phantom sounds of gunfire and the bitter stench of cordite and death and rotten corpses and –

He awoke with a sudden, agonised gasp, an unbidden ghost of a yell trapped in his chest and struggling to get out.

“Easy, man … easy now … it’s okay … jus’ a bad dream …”

Hardison.

Eliot let out a croaky gasp of relief as he felt Hardison’s hand rest carefully on his chest, anchoring him to this new reality, a clean, antiseptic world far away from the horror in his heart and head.

“Want somethin’ to drink?” Hardison asked softly.

“Yeah,” Eliot ground out, feeling every one of his injuries – except his damn foot, he thought vaguely. His right leg was shot through with pain, running down his thigh and into his knee, and the muscle felt as though acid had been poured into his veins.

But even as Hardison gently cradled his head and helped him drink a small mouthful of iced water, Eliot welcomed the pain.

Toller had told him that the pain setting his upper leg on fire was part and parcel of the healing process as feeling slowly returned. But the little doctor had also warned him that he may never be completely free of pain in his right leg – the consequence of his injury. But Eliot could live with it, he decided. He lived with pain every day of his life, and this would be just one more ache to plague him. Pain meant he was alive, and it also meant that feeling was slowly returning to his leg – and, hopefully, his foot.

Savouring the cold water, Eliot realised the room was quiet. Nate and Sophie were gone, taking a tired and teary Lizzie with them, and the usual background buzz of a busy day in the hospital was gone. Night-time, he thought. His internal body clock was shot to hell along with the rest of him, and he had no idea what day it was, let alone what time.

Hardison somehow understood his confusion.

“It’s just after five in the mornin’. You’ve been asleep for a long time, m’man. Feelin’ better for it?”

Eliot grimaced and then winced as his cut lip stung.

“A little …” he mumbled. “Apart from –“

“Yeah, I know, bro. Nightmares. But Doc says you’re doin’ real good, an’ the swelling’s goin’ down in your back.”

“Damn’ leg’s on fire,” Eliot grouched. “Pins an’ needles’re drivin’ me crazy.” He waved away the plastic cup of water, and tried to get the room into focus. His chest hurt, and he had a new sore bit in his side, where the tube had been. Still, he decided, it was one less piece of shit attached to his battered body and one more step towards gettin’ out of this goddamn hospital.

He heard a soft snore, and managed to peer over to his left to see Parker curled up on the couch against the wall, tucked under a blanket, sound asleep.

Hardison smiled affectionately.

“It’s the first time she’s had a proper sleep since you got hurt, El. Jus’ had naps an’ stuff. She’s been sittin’ there, lookin’ at you, or talkin’ to you, or fightin’ off the nurses when she could, jus’ so they wouldn’t disturb you. Man, I tell ya, she’s been a goddamn terrier.”

Eliot absorbed the information silently, and thought about what little he could remember of the past couple of days. Every disjointed, agonised moment or confused jumble of memories had Parker in there somewhere. He could feel the touch of her hand in his, and he vaguely remembered something about friggin’ safes, he was sure, and he could hear her in his head, making sure he was safe and loved and protected. And there she was, a few feet away, still there for him even as she slept.

“Remind me to cook her somethin’ nice when I’m back on my feet,” he rumbled softly. “Somethin’ with lots of chocolate.”

“Oh, man, no!” Hardison whispered in alarm. “If you do that, Eliot, you can damn well deal with her crazy-as-a-fruit-bat stuff!”

Eliot smiled for what felt like the first time in days, and inhaled the freshness of the oxygen from the nasal cannula which had replaced the mask. Things were improving.

“It’ll be worth it,” he said sincerely. He turned his gaze back to Hardison, and for the first time noticed the weary lines in the young man’s face and the exhaustion emanating from every pore.

“Hey … when did you last sleep?”

Hardison grinned ruefully and rubbed gritty eyes.

“Not since you got beat up in a parkin’ lot,” he admitted. “When I haven’t been worryin’ about your sorry carcass I been workin’ on a plan.” He quirked a small, triumphant smile. “I think I got somethin’.”

Eliot scowled as best as he could under the circumstances, and was about to begin a somewhat disjointed tirade on why Hardison should not be planning anything to do with Danny McAllister Junior because the asshole was far too dangerous, when Hardison held up a hand.

“Stop with the grouchy, El – we won’t be runnin’ any complicated con, or even speakin’ to McAllister. We’re not touchin’ his bank accounts – well, not yet, anyway – an’ all I gotta do is clone his cell phone, an’ we’ll be doin’ that tomorrow. After that … it’s a slow burn, m’man … as in ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’.” Hardison sighed happily.

Eliot was now somewhat confused. He could blame it on the morphine, but he just wasn’t following Hardison at all.

“What the hell are you talkin’ about?” he rasped, irritated.

Hardison grinned like a Cheshire cat.

“Age of the geek, baby!” he said.


Danny McAllister Junior was feeling decidedly chirpy. It was a fine morning, he had bet heavily on the bare-knuckle fights he had attended the previous night in a disused warehouse and had reaped the rewards, and then headed home with a couple of girls who hung around the fighters. It had been a thoroughly fun night.

The only down side to the day was having to meet up with his father for breakfast in his penthouse. Danny hated his father. Senior gave him plenty of money but nothing else … no responsibility … no power. If his Mam had still been alive, she wouldn’t have allowed it. No sir.

Walking through the lobby of the building in which Senior housed his offices and his home, Danny entered the big elevator to take him to the 21st floor and checked his cell phone for a message from his bookie, but there was nothing. But as the doors were about to close, he saw an extraordinarily elegant redhead heading towards him, and intrigued, he held the elevator doors for her.

Big, expressive brown eyes smiled her thanks, and he unashamedly ran his gaze over her shapely figure and expensive, stylish clothes. Quite the looker, he decided, and although older than himself, he knew that was even more of a draw. He loved women with experience. They had more stamina, he decided.

She stood beside him in the elevator and pulled out her cell phone. She smiled at him again, and then began a text.

Danny checked his cell once more, and this time the message he was expecting was there. While he was reading it, the elevator stopped at the 10th floor, and the redhead stepped out. Danny longingly watched her sashay down the corridor until the doors closed.

Oh well. Still, there was always a supply of young pliant women about, even though Sarah Rafferty was no longer one of them. For a moment he felt a surge of anger at that long-haired bastard who had tackled him at the brewpub.

But his handsome face twisted into a vicious grin. The man had paid for his interference. Danny remembered the feeling of the man’s ribs breaking, and the satisfying thud of his boots on the man’s sides and back. He had laughed at the spray of blood from the man’s mouth as the sonofabitch had fallen into the filth of the parking lot.

Then the elevator pinged and stopped, the doors opening onto a richly decorated lobby with a plush carpet, and Danny instantly forgot about the man he and his men had beaten to a pulp that night. His triumph turned sour. Now he had to deal with Daddy.


“Oooh, baby, come to Papa!” Hardison crooned as a list of contact names and telephone numbers began to scroll on his screen. Thank god for Senior’s good wi-fi and hot-spots throughout his building. All it needed was Sophie and her adapted cell-phone to be fairly close for the clone to work, stripping the information from McAllister’s sim card.

Did you get it all?  Sophie whispered through the earbud. Hardison knew she would be getting into Nate’s car right at this moment and carelessly tossing the wig of auburn hair onto the back seat.

“Yes indeedy,” Hardison answered, that aura of ultimate smugness that only Hardison could generate redolent in his smiling voice. “That’s it, Sophie. No more contact with the McAllister family. C’mon home, lovely lady!”

Charmer! Sophie quipped, and he could hear the warmth in her soft tones.

Stop hitting on my wife, Hardison! Nate interrupted, amused, and then Hardison heard a tiny Lizzie-giggle in the background. It seemed Lizzie approved too.

“Sophie, when you get to the hospital, I’m gonna give you a squeezy Nana-hug!” he said proudly.

Oooh, I’m all for that, Sophie breathed, just to annoy Nate, who sighed patiently. As long as Lizzie gets one too! Sophie added.

“Deal!” Hardison agreed instantly. “Now then … let’s see what Junior’s up to …”

Using the touch-screen he swiped the scrolling list to the left-hand monitor and tapped an icon on the centre screen. A scene burst into life in glorious black and white of Danny McAllister Junior exiting an elevator and slipping his cell-phone into his jacket pocket. His face looked as though he’d rather be sucking lemons.

As he walked down the corridor Hardison skilfully toggled between security cameras, keeping up with Junior and following his every move. Junior stopped twice to check his phone.

“Bookie … he likes street fights, the moron …” Hardison murmured, reading the texts as they came up on the screen, “… and someone called Bruno sayin’ they’re meetin’ at Unity tonight at eight.” Unity was a night club frequented by local celebrities as well as anyone who was someone in Portland. ”Well, that could be useful,” Hardison added thoughtfully.

Parker peered over Hardison’s shoulder and stared at Junior as he headed towards a double door at the end of the corridor guarded by a small work station manned by two very large and capable-looking men in neat suits. She pointed at Junior and curled her lip in loathing.

“We’re coming to getcha, Mister Snob McSnob-Face,” she hissed maniacally.

Hardison’s grin was devilish.

“You got that right, momma!” he said. And with that, he began looking into the security camera system for Unity Nightclub. This was going to be fun.


Danny was dancing like a snake, writhing and sinuous and, he thought, sexy as all-get-out, and the girl he was dancing with kept up with him, a beautiful dark-haired creature he doubted was old enough to be in the dingy bar, his fifth stop of the night.

Senior had left a bad taste in his mouth. Yet more complaints about his spending and his irresponsibility and poor attitude and yadda-yadda-yah, and Danny had told him that if Senior insisted in not allowing him any responsibility then what else was he supposed to do? It wasn’t what Mam had wanted, he said, which he knew was the only thing he could say that would get underneath his father’s skin.

It worked. His comment hadn’t gone down well, much to his delight, but it had earned him a vicious slap for his troubles. The bruise under his eye wouldn’t be gone for days. But he comforted himself with the warm feeling that he had stuck a barb in his father’s black, misbegotten heart.

To celebrate, he had taken a selfie in each of the places he had been drinking, sticking out his tongue in defiance at his father, even if the ol’ man never saw them.

Grabbing the girl’s arm, making her yelp as his fingers dug into her creamy skin, he yanked her tight against him and stuck his tongue out as he snapped a selfie of them both.

That little chore done, he pulled her lips to his and kissed her, biting her lower lip. Aroused, he tugged her along with him out of the bar and towards his Porsche, and although she protested a little, he knew she liked it rough. He kissed her again and took yet another selfie, out in the cold night and the dim lights of the dank street.

Pushing her into the car as she smiled shakily at him, he dropped into the driver’s seat, half-drunk, and tooled the sleek vehicle out into the darkness and headed towards his apartment.


In the early hours of the morning, Danny McAllister Junior yawned and eased out of bed, ignoring the slender, naked body of the girl beside him, her snores evidence of the surfeit of alcohol she had consumed during their evening together.

Danny, clad only in his boxers, drifted through to his living room and sat down, pouring himself a shot of bourbon. His cell-phone lay on the table beside the couch. Danny winced as his bruised face ached, but he lifted the phone and idly began scrolling through the selfies he had taken through the night.

Smiling a little, he saw the glee in his own eyes staring back at him, and he felt smug that his father hadn’t dampened his evening.

He was halfway through the pictures when he suddenly frowned, puzzled. What the – ??? Scrolling back to the beginning, he studied the pictures more carefully.

At first, it just seemed to be a blur in the corner of the picture. But in the next one, it resolved into … something. In the third, he realised it was a figure … a shadowy, almost transparent figure of what he supposed was a man.

He enlarged the photo but all he did was make the image more indistinct, so he moved to the next one. And the one after that. He carried on until the end, and in every picture, every goddamn selfie, in all five of the bars and clubs he had visited that night, there it – he – was, a dark shape in a black coat and fedora, always in the background, face never showing but a presence nonetheless.

Danny felt a chill down his spine, despite the mellow heat of the bourbon in his belly.

But it was the last photograph that made his mouth dry with an uncharacteristic dread … the selfie he had snapped outside, in the street, in the dark and dreary night.

There Danny was, leering at the camera, tongue out and bruised face shining with lust and defiance and hatred, the front of the silver Porsche gleaming behind him. But in the background, all shadow and blackness and bleeding outline, was the figure.

But this time Danny could see the eyes, glittering out from beneath the fedora. They reflected cold light, like the limpid flicker of moon-glow in the eyes of a great cat, and he could almost see a grim, sly smile in the shadow of the mouth below.

Unnerved, Danny stumbled upright and headed straight for the bedroom where he dropped down beside the girl … Natasha, or Natalie, or whatever the hell her name was, and he shook her hard.

“Wha –“ she blurted, still half-drunk, as Danny unceremoniously hauled her upright and shoved the cell-phone at her.

Did you see him?” he demanded, voice cracking slightly. “Can you remember seeing this asshole??”

“Um … see who?” she answered sleepily.

Danny gestured roughly at the image on his phone.

“Him! The guy standing at the back of me! See??”

The girl yawned and peered at the image.

“Nope. Just you,” she answered.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, look!!” he growled.

The girl, now a little scared, looked closely at the phone, and shook her head.

“There’s nobody there!” she insisted, and Danny shoved her away and looked at the picture. And then he looked at all of the others.

The figure was gone.


Miles away, in a quiet hospital room, as Eliot muttered through yet another nightmare and a more refreshed Parker soothed him through the horror of it, Hardison switched off the monitors and wandered over to the couch so that he could try and get some rest.

As he lay down and pulled the blanket over him, he smiled grimly.

Yes, he thought to himself. Now it begins.

And now content, he drifted into a deep and dreamless sleep.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


It was during the following afternoon that it became patently clear that the honeymoon period with Eliot’s temper was at an end.

Hardison awoke seven hours later, feeling refreshed, only to hear the sound of Parker trying her best to help a thoroughly sick Eliot as he emptied what little he had in his stomach into a bowl. The situation was made even more hazardous, Hardison knew, because Eliot was recovering from a pneumothorax, a collapsed lung and three broken ribs. Vomiting was agonising at best and dangerous at worst.

Stumbling to his feet, he headed to the right side of the bed and eased Eliot onto his good side, trying to help take the pressure off his damaged chest and side.

As Eliot tried to catch his breath and grunted in pain as his injuries almost sent him back into blessed unconsciousness, Hardison held him, helping as much as he could as Parker murmured gently to Eliot and held his lank hair back from his face.

“Where the hell are the nurses???” Hardison hissed angrily. “He needs them, dammit!!” He supported Eliot’s pain-wracked body as he helped his friend ease back onto the bed, listening anxiously to the ragged, too-quick breathing and the congested cough that came from deep within the hitter’s chest.

“He swore at them,” Parker said hurriedly as she laid the bowl to one side and dampened a cloth to wipe the sweat from Eliot’s flushed face. “A lot. Ranting, even.” She glanced at Hardison. “He has to come off the morphine, Alec. He can’t take it anymore. It makes him sick, even if it’s just a small amount. And he dreams … such terrible dreams, and he can’t rest properly. He sleeps but he just gets more and more exhausted. I can’t take watching him like this.” Hardison had never seen Parker’s face so strained, and, he had to admit somewhat sheepishly, he must have been tired if Eliot’s fit of cussin’ hadn’t woken him.

“But the pain …” Hardison said quietly, “he says the pain in his leg is getting worse an’ worse, ‘cause the feeling’s comin’ back. He needs somethin’ to help. Even Eliot can’t deal with that amount of –“

“Pain … pain I can take.” Eliot gasped, clearing his throat and trying to cough the phlegm out of his chest. “Just stop the damn morphine …”

“Cross your arms and hug yourself,” Parker instructed hurriedly, and before Eliot could even react, she moved his arms over his chest.

“Now,” she said, “you can cough. Okay? Hold tight! It’ll help!”

And Eliot did as he was told, instantly and without a murmur of complaint.

Hardison’s eyebrows headed to his hairline.

“Huh,” he said. Respect to the mamma.

Eliot’s coughing eased, and clumsily uncrossing his arms, he tried to sit upright.

“Where the hell you goin’, man?” Hardison said, his voice hitting the ‘yelp’ level as it always did when he was alarmed.

“What’s going on?” Toller asked as he hurried into the room, one of the nurses in tow. She had obviously alerted the surgeon as to Eliot’s bout of temper.

“Sick … sick of this,” Eliot ground out. “Gotta move … get some feelin’ back in my foot an’ … an’ that damn morphine –“

And before he could finish his sentence he was heaving again, Parker diving for the bowl and just managing to get it in place before Eliot puked up nothing but watery bile.

Toller helped Hardison ease Eliot onto his side once more, and then the hacker lost his temper.

“Doc, if you don’t take him off that damn, shitty stuff then … then …” Hardison struggled for a suitable threat and failed. “Hell … I don’t know what I’ll do, but it won’t be pretty!” he finished lamely. He took a breath to calm down, and continued in a softer, more conciliatory tone. “Please, Doc – just … please.”

Eliot lay back, nothing more to heave out of his system, and lay gasping and hurting and embarrassed beyond belief. But the nausea was overwhelming, and he could simply not take any more. For a man who had withstood some of the worst torture humanity had created and lived through it, somewhere in his weary, nightmare-ridden thoughts he was horrified that something as simple as a drug could bring him to such despair.

Toller never said a word. He just reached for the morphine pump, switched it off and then disconnected it from the IV port attached to Eliot’s left hand.

“Done,” he said. He looked around at the nurse. “Why wasn’t I told that he was having such a bad reaction?”

The nurse shook her head.

“Doctor Green was concerned about the pain level in Mr. Stone’s leg,” she answered hesitantly and using Eliot’s alias. “I don’t think he realised it was so bad,” she added warily. She stayed silent about the fact that these people scared the crap out of young Doctor Green and the man hadn’t asked if Eliot had issues with the drug.

Toller said nothing, but turned back to Eliot.

“It’ll take a little while for the nausea to subside,” he said softly. “Want me to give you something for it?”

Eliot shook his head and then wished he hadn’t as the dizziness it caused set his stomach churning worse than ever. But didn’t he care, because he was far too exhausted, beaten and hurting to be bothered if he lay there and choked on his own vomit. Right now, he convinced himself, it would be a pleasant respite simply to be dead.

“Okay,” Toller continued. “As for the pain … can you take oral painkillers? Percocet? That sort of thing?”

“Same problem,” Parker said as Eliot grimly tried to keep from throwing up. “All of them make him fuzzy and sick.”

Toller nodded. This was a problem that wasn’t going away, so he had another idea.

“How about a TENS machine? It won’t stop the pain, but it might help control it a bit. It often helps back pain, sciatica … pregnant women can use it during labour to help with the contractions. Willing to give it a try?”

“Sounds like a plan!” Hardison perked up – techy stuff always made him feel better about things. He knew the mild electrical pulses produced by the machine could help reduce pain signals to the brain and even release endorphins, the body’s natural painkiller. “Try it, El – it might just take the edge off an’ you can maybe get some decent sleep too.”

Eliot’s brain sluggishly absorbed the offer, and he swallowed bile.

“’Kay. Worth a try.” He lay silently for a second or two, getting his roiling guts under control, and then forged on. “I want to get outta this damn bed, Doc.”

Toller studied Eliot. The man was white with sickness, bruised, cut, hurting like hell and on the knife edge of total collapse, but he was staring at Toller with such intensity with his one good eye that the doctor knew in his heart what to do.

“Be right back,” he said, and headed out of the room.

Eliot allowed his head to drop back on his pillow. He could do no more. Whether it was the effects of the morphine, or just the sickness and the helplessness and the never-ending friggin’ pain in his leg, he had not felt such despair for a long, long time. He blinked his eye open. He realised he had to snap out of this, and the way to do it was to get out of this goddamn hospital away from these goddamn drugs and the goddamn nurses and doctors who wouldn’t leave him alone.

He knew Hardison and Parker wouldn’t help, and he knew he still had antibiotics drip-feeding into his system, although – thank god – the catheter was gone, even though his kidneys still ached like a bitch.

But his treacherous thoughts were interrupted by Toller as he returned carrying two elbow crutches.

“Okay, Eliot – stay put in your bed for one more night and let the morphine flush through your system, and we try these tomorrow with the physiotherapist. Now don’t expect miracles,” he added, smiling, “but movement might help a bit and at least we can begin getting your muscles working again. You’ll be in deep trouble if your muscles begin wasting, so some therapy and exercise – within reason, mind, because of your other injuries – should get you working in the right direction. Can you do that?”

Eliot, staring at the crutches, winced internally, but forced a crooked smile on his bruised face. Crutches. Nasty, awkward things. But, he supposed, it was a move in the right direction.

“Sure thing, Doc,” he said.


Danny McAllister Junior picked at the beautifully-cooked scrambled eggs on the plate before him.

“Somethin’ wrong, son?” his father asked, still reading his weekly copy of the Sunday Post, smiling at Oor Wullie as he yelled ‘Crivvens!’, the cartoon a strong memory from his childhood.

Danny swallowed nervously.

“No … well …” he braced himself. “ … yeah, there’s something wrong!”

Senior raised his eyes from his newspaper, sighing.

“What now?”

Danny stared at his breakfast.

“Are you having me followed?” he blurted, words coming out in a rush.

Senior stared at him for a few moments, and then returned to Oor Wullie.

“Now, son … why would I do that? What do you do that could possibly interest me?” he asked quietly as he took a sip of tea.

Danny stared at his coffee and realised his father was right. Senior showed no interest in anything Danny did.

“So, stop being a wee shite and eat your breakfast. That smoked salmon disnae come cheap, y’know.” Senior left it at that and showed no more interest in his son as they sat at breakfast.

Danny was numb. He looked up at the security cameras in the room, and then back at his coffee. Forking some salmon and eggs into his mouth, he tried not to instinctively look back at the cameras as the one to his left turned slightly and fixed its electronic glare on him.

The eggs and salmon were ash in his mouth as fear began to pool in his belly.

He knew that his father had replaced the CCTV system only four months ago, and the newer, far more sophisticated system had replaced these cameras. His father had only left them in place for effect.

He swallowed the food in his mouth, even as he felt like vomiting.

The camera now looking at him wasn’t even switched on, even as it turned slightly on its support, like a dog listening to its owner’s voice. The lens silently whirred and extended, focusing on Danny.

He eyed each of the disconnected cameras in the room, and he watched as they all turned to look straight at him.


“Easy, now …” Toller said as Eliot was supported by Hardison as he swung his left leg off the bed. So far, so good. Now for the right one. Parker, sitting on the couch biting her lip, twitched forward but Eliot raised his finger, stopping her even as she eased herself half-off the couch.

“C’n manage,” he rasped, using his right hand to assist the weak, agonised muscles in his hip and thigh to drag his leg off the bed. The TENS machine had helped, but his foot was a mass of pins and needles, and it was all he could do to try and point his toe and ease the discomfort.

But at least, he thought, he was feeling something in his foot. At last.

His head reeled and the world tilted a little at the change in angle, and he could see Sophie in the chair across the room, Lizzie on her lap, watching anxiously with Nate standing beside her.

But slowly everything righted itself, and Eliot had his triumph for the day. He was sitting up, and he was staying up.

There was a collective sigh of relief in the room, and Toller nodded sagely.

“So … today you just try and stand, all right? No walking. At all. You hear me?”

Eliot scowled, but nodded.

“Gotcha, Doc.” He even allowed a smile to twitch the corner of his mouth. “Feels good. Look – I can even wiggle my toes,” he added, not a little proudly.

To prove it, he managed to bend his right big toe just a little bit.

“Awesome,” Toller deadpanned. “Now all you have to do is stand up. And use your legs to balance if you can, rather than rely on your arms and crutches. They’re only there to help if you go off-balance, and to support you at a pinch. I don’t want you tearing any stitches or opening that very neat incision I put in your back, if you don’t mind. I don’t want to have to do it all over again.”

Eliot looked at his friends and then at the doctor. Hardison was beside him if he needed the support, and he had begun his physiotherapy, so he felt able to try and take the next step. Or not, he thought, as he put his feet on the floor. His right foot exploded into cramps and the pins and needles increased a hundred-fold, and he hissed with the pain of it.

“El –“ Hardison warned, ready to catch the hitter if he fell.

Dammit, Hardison! Let me do this!” Eliot said, not unkindly. He just wanted to see how far he could push himself. His left leg was shaky with lack of use and his right was on fire, but he gritted his teeth and stood up.

Sweat ran down his back and chest, his ribs and back were screaming with pain and his head swam, but he made it. He was on his own two feet again. Something he had feared would never happen.

He managed a whole twenty-two seconds before his legs gave out and Hardison caught him, easing him back onto the bed and helping him swing his legs back under the covers.

The effort had just about knocked him sideways. But, he decided, it was worth it. Eliot closed his good eye and rested his exhausted body back into the sheets, and listened to his team babbling on about how brave he was, and how he was unstoppable (well, that bit was true, he agreed), and how he would be better in no time. Eliot hoped so. But he knew his leg would never be quite right again. Toller had told him so.

Now he had to decide how he would deal with the future. A hitter with a limp – even a small one – could be a liability at best and a disaster if the leg failed him at the wrong moment. And he couldn’t think it through in this damn hospital with everyone poking and prodding him.

Even as Sophie sat Lizzie beside him on the bed and Eliot held her close, breathing in her comforting baby-scent as she hugged him, he knew he had decisions to make.


Danny couldn’t sleep. He lay alone in his luxurious apartment, lost in his huge bed, the comforter drawn up around his shoulders like a barrier against the world.

He had had a strange, detached day, feeling out of sorts and a little anxious. He was beginning to wonder if he had food poisoning or something. He knew that could sometimes cause hallucinations. But he didn’t feel sick or feverish, and his guts were fine.

Perhaps … perhaps if he could manage a good night’s sleep he would feel better. Yes, that’s what would help, he was sure.

He thought back to his childhood, when Mam would smile and play with him and call him her wee man, and he could almost taste the jam sandwiches she made for him as a treat. His Dad called them ‘jeeley pieces’, and he told Danny about his own mother throwing the ‘pieces’ to him from the window of their tenement, wrapped in newspaper. But that was when Danny’s father used to smile at him. The ‘before’ time, when Danny’s Mam was still alive and the cancer hadn’t begun to rot her from the inside out and killed his father’s heart at the same time.

Danny smiled to himself. He loved his Mam. He remembered her warm brown eyes and her soft, Highland accent. He remembered her laughter and her capable hands that could make clothes and bake scones with equal skill.

He was more relaxed now, and he was drifting slowly into sleep when the big television in his bedroom suddenly switched on.

The room was filled with the yowling scry of static, echoing in the gloom, and Danny jerked awake.

Damn. He must have inadvertently pushed the remote ‘on’ button. But then his gut roiled when he remembered that the remote was sitting in front of the television.

And even as he realised something was terribly, terribly wrong, he heard a distant, haunting voice drift through the room.

Johnny Mathis.

It was Johnny Mathis singing and he was … oh god … he was singing Mam’s favourite song, ‘Misty,’ and he remembered his Mam humming it in the kitchen as she baked pancakes and –

Danny scrambled from the bed and reached for the remote. Pointing it at the television, he switched the dratted thing off. Dropping back on the bed, he hung his head and tried to stop the shaking in his lean frame, taking deep breaths to slow his pounding heart.

The silence was deafening.

And then static filled the apartment, and there was Johnny, his silken honeyed voice filling the living room as the huge plasma smart-television switched on, and the voice became louder and louder and more insistent, and Danny yelped as the fear gripped him.

‘Look at me … I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree …’

And damn, Danny thought wildly, I’m not helpless and he ran through to the living room and pulled the television plug from the wall socket.

Once more, silence reigned.

‘… and I feel like I’m clinging to a cloud –‘

The words were shrieking now, this time from the digital radio in the kitchen, and the thing wasn’t even plugged in, Danny knew, so how could this be happening and his heart leapt in sheer terror as he stumbled into the kitchen and smashed the radio to the floor. It shattered to pieces, metal and plastic scattering mindlessly on the expensive tiles, and then the silence was absolute.

Until he heard a soft skittering in the wall.

Danny vomited.


Parker had left Hardison sleeping on the couch as Eliot slumbered through the night, this time a little easier and not so troubled by nightmares.

She had found a shower down the hallway and had luxuriated in the heat, and afterwards had gone for a walk through the quiet corridors, knowing that in a couple of hours the hospital would stir once more to be a living, breathing entity and buzz with people and their problems. Sophie, Nate and Lizzie would arrive to take the day shift of Eliot-watching, and Hardison could relax after working through the night on some stuff to do with Junior. Hardison had eaten two whole packs of gummy frogs, and the sugar high had almost been as terrifying as Parker’s chocolate binges.

Parker found her way to the roof, which was disappointingly low, but she enjoyed the fresh air and the city sprawled out before her, the sun teasing the horizon. But she had to get back to Eliot. The man needed her … needed them all, and she couldn’t leave him alone for long.

But when she got back to Eliot’s room, she found the bed empty and the crutches missing.

Eliot was gone.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


“Hardison! Hardison!!

The hacker surfaced slowly from a happy dream where Danny McAllister Junior was being chased down an infinity corridor by a pack of mechanical K9s howling ‘Kill the McAllister!’ and blinked himself awake.

Parker was less than a foot away from his face and she was glaring at him with such fury that for a moment he wished he was the one being chased, not Junior. It sure as hell was safer, considering the way Parker was looking at him like a feral cat. And he thought Eliot’s glare was scary.

“Eliot’s gone! You’ve lost him!!” she hissed, both terrified and furious.

Hardison peered past Parker’s seething face and in a heart-jolting moment realised Eliot’s bed was empty. His eyebrows hitched skywards. The stupid, stupid, stupid sonofabitch had done a runner.

“Hell and damnation!” he spat, “No, no, no you don’t, man!! Don’t you dare do this!

And he was up and off the couch in a second, peering out into the corridor. No gimpy, irate, hurting Spencer in a hospital gown, no nothing. Then he noticed a smear of something on the floor.

Blood. A hint of a bloody footprint. Shit-shit-shit -

Hardison firmly tamped down the panic and turned to Parker, his eyes darting about the room as he thought it through.

“Call Nate an’ Sophie, and then we work each and every floor until we find him, okay?”

Parker, still angry but willing to work with it, nodded.

“I’ll go from the roof downwards, although when I went for a walk I’m sure I would have seen him. Although, thinking about it, Eliot’s good at hiding.” She frowned.

“Not all beat up the way he is,” Hardison growled. He shook his head even as he looked around the room for clues. “Why the hell does he do this?” he muttered, even as he found the source of the blood.

“He hates these places, you know that,” Parker, said, looking at the cannula and IV port hanging from the stand, bloody and dripping antibiotic fluid. There was a spatter of blood on the floor from Eliot wrenching the cannula out of the back of his hand, and there was the smeared imprint of a bare foot – a left foot – square in the middle.

Eliot was barefoot, sick, clad only in a thin hospital gown, bleeding and so badly hurt he was supposed to be unable to walk. Yeah right, Hardison grouched to himself. This was Eliot-goddamn-Spencer they were talkin’ about here – he could out-hero Chuck Norris even on his worst days.

Parker was on her cell phone calling Nate, and Hardison could tell that the man was already rousing Sophie and compartmentalising how they would work getting to the hospital with a baby in tow, and then help look for one of the most dangerous men in the world, a man who in his present mental state was unpredictable, damaged as he was.

Hardison brought up the coms app on his own cell phone and handed Parker an earbud while putting one in his own ear. He left two on the small table beside the monitors and texted Nate to let him know where they were.

Parker was ready to go.

“I’ll check the roof,” she said. “I don’t think he’d go up, but I think he’s not quite sure what he’s doing right now,” she added.

Hardison had to agree. Eliot had had a rough time of it, and he was so exhausted and hurting even he would probably admit he wasn’t thinking straight.

“’Kay … I’ll work my way down. It’s only three floors, so he can’t have got too far. Dammit,” he added, frustration setting in.

He turned to speak to Parker but she was already gone, making her way back up to the roof just in case there was a friggin’ Oklahoman moron up there bleedin’ all over the damn place an’ … an’ … Hardison sighed. He was sure Eliot was one day goin’ to be the death of him.

And underneath all of that frustration and irritation and anger, Alec Hardison was absolutely terrified that his best friend and brother-from-hell was goin’ to get himself deader than a dead possum because the dumb-ass was utterly convinced that he couldn’t protect his team … his family … any more. When he found Eliot, Hardison vowed, he was goin’ to hug the friggin’ crap out of him.


Hardison soon discovered that bare feet left a short-lived imprint on linoleum, and if he angled his gaze just so, he could see the very faint trace of a footprint. A left foot, as it turned out.

Damn.

Eliot was hopping, using his crutches as support, which in turn meant he was putting the weight of his whole one-eighty of muscle and bone onto the frames. What damage that was doing to his ribs, chest and back, Hardison couldn’t even begin to guess, but he was sure none of it was good.

But at least he now knew Eliot couldn’t be very far away, as he could still see the dim outline of the hitter’s foot and occasionally a hint of rubber where the crutch had slipped slightly and left a mark. Obviously Eliot really wasn’t coping very well with the crutches.

Hardison had a sudden memory of Eliot with two bullet holes in him, blood-soaked and really badly bandaged up, throwing away the crutch he was given and telling Parker and Hardison he didn’t like hospitals. Tough? Yeah. But dumb, sometimes? Absolutely.

He’s not up here, Parker said through the earbud.

“I think he’s headin’ down the way,” Hardison said as he realised the footprint led to the door which opened onto the stairwell. Stairs? Eliot was going down the stairs? Hadn’t the fool ever heard of elevators?? No, that would be too damned easy. But then … he would probably draw too much attention in an elevator. A long-haired, half-naked growly man in a hospital gown, with a bloody hand and hopping on one leg while using badly-managed crutches would not go unnoticed, and Eliot wouldn’t want any of the nursing staff to recognise him. The stairs would be quiet and away from prying eyes.

“Check out the perimeter, Parker. I’m right behind him … I think.”

And with that he headed off down the stairs, taking them three at a time.


Parker, with her usual indifference to heights and falling off things, was leaning over the roof of the hospital, trying to see exits and hidden areas not normally accessible from ground level.

“Nothing … nothing – oh … what’s that? Nope … sorry Hardison … it’s a trash can … Eliot-Eliot-Eliot, where are you …” she sang nervously to herself as she worked her way around the roof, desperately hoping for something … anything … that would tell her he was safe and sound and not lying in dirt, or bleeding out, or … or being attacked by bears, or aliens, or hurt and alone and sad - she couldn’t bear the idea of Eliot being alone when he needed them -

Got him!” she hissed urgently.

Where??? Hardison’s voice through the earbud was all hope and anguish.

Parker saw the hacker exit the stairwell and head for the trash cans behind the hospital kitchen and the staff parking lot beyond.

“To your right. Oh god … Hardison, he’s down … he’s not moving …”

Parker saw Hardison instantly break into a run, heading for the dumpster behind the trash cans and towards the still form lying crumpled against a wall.

Turning on her heels, she ran towards the roof exit.

Eliot needed her.


The bundle of clothing lying against the wall beside the dumpster resolved into a lax, boneless body, bloody and still, crutches lying useless on the dirty surface. Somewhere along the way Eliot had acquired a jacket and some scrub bottoms, although how he had managed to put them on, Hardison had no idea. But Eliot was nothing if not persistent.

“God, El … what the hell have you done to yourself …” he said softly when he saw Eliot’s bare feet. His bad foot was still relatively clean, but his left foot … the one Hardison had tracked through the hospital and on which Eliot had done the well-nigh impossible and hobbled on to work his near-escape … was filthy and bloody, and then Hardison took in the broken shards of a glass bottle scattered about the dumpster. The cuts in his bare foot were superficial but still bled sluggishly.

Managing to ease himself down beside his best friend, he cupped Eliot’s face in his hands and felt the heat of life, and a blue eye opened, hazy and unfocused.

“Almost … almost made it …” Eliot whispered, and coughed, the pain sending his back arching against the wall.

Hardison knew what to do this time. Checking that Eliot didn’t have any further damage, he gently lifted the hitter upright and slipped behind him, and holding Eliot’s arms, crossed them over his chest and supported the man through the pain and stress of it all.

When it was done, Eliot let his head rest on Hardison’s chest and the young hacker folded Eliot into his arms, holding his friend close and safe and protected, and he rested his chin on Eliot’s head, feeling the shallow, heaving breaths and the shivering running through Eliot’s battered body.

“El …” he said, his voice low and shaky, “You gotta listen to me, m’man, okay?”

He felt the almost imperceptible nod against his chest, and Eliot patted Hardison’s arm with his right hand.

“Y … yeah … listenin’ … s’not as though … as though I’m goin’ anyplace, huh …”

Good, Hardison thought. Now he’s got it.

“Glad you’re payin’ attention bro, ‘cause you’re gonna listen, an’ listen hard, alright?” And before Eliot could react, Hardison let it all out in a rush. “Eliot, don’t you ever … ever … do anythin’ like this again, y’hear??? I know it’s hard for you. I get it … I really do … but we can’t …” Hardison’s voice hitched with tears … “we can’t watch you do this to yourself an’ think you have to do this on your own when you have us. If you want to leave the hospital, we’ll fix it. We will, I promise. We’ll figure out somethin’. Just … just don’t do this and expect us to watch you get more hurt than you already are. We ain’t goin’ anyplace. We’re yours. Your family. An’ you’re ours, whether you want it or not. It’s not as though we ain’t told you that before god knows how many times. So grow a pair an’ deal with it, you stupid sonofabitch!”

Eliot’s hand grasped Hardison’s arm, weak but with purpose.

“Can’t … can’t stay in there anymore, Alec … dammitget me out … take me home.”

And as Hardison held Eliot tight and still and safe, he heard the voices of Parker and Nate and Sophie as they ran toward them, and it was then he realised that for the first time in all of the years he had known Eliot, he heard the man acknowledge that he had a home.

So, he did as he had promised, and hugged the friggin’ crap out of Eliot.


“ … and another thing …” Sophie paced an agitated line in front of Eliot as he lay on his bed, still in the jacket and scrubs, “… next time you decide to make a break for it, we will be shackling you to the bed, Eliot. With the very best un-pickable handcuffs we can find – “

“Ooohhh, sex-ehhhh,” Parker grinned, eyes narrowed.

Sophie’s glare dropped the temperature in the room by about ten degrees and Parker thought being funny at a time like this perhaps wasn’t the best move. She promptly stared out of the window at nothing, which was easier than staring at Eliot, who had his grumpy face on.

Sophie turned like a wildcat on the injured hitter, even as she paced.

“ … and you will be staying put, you hear me? Dear god, my blood pressure … and Lizzie hasn’t even had her breakfast yet because we had to rush out of the house because some berk decided to try and break out of the hospital like the bloody bird man of Alcatraz!”

“Soph –“ Eliot wheezed tiredly.

“Don’t you even begin to ‘Soph’ me, Eliot Spencer!”

“But –“

Sophie stopped her pacing and rounded on Eliot, who began to look a little hunted, an effect intensified by the circles under his eyes, his pale skin and the healing, multi-coloured bruises on his face.

“But?? But??? But what?? What could possibly justify you doing such a stupid thing? But you had to get out of here? But you didn’t trust us to have your back and help you, if only you had asked?” Sophie threw up her hands in despair. “Never again, you hear me?? Never. You talk to us, Eliot.” She took a deep breath to steady herself, and turned to Toller, who was sitting at the bottom of the bed cleaning up Eliot’s foot, as he decided he couldn’t miss the fireworks. “When can we take him home?”

Toller, who had been watching this tirade with genuine awe, blinked, surprised.

“Um … a week?” He said weakly. Sophie’s face became thunderous. “Okay … four days?”

Sophie thought about it for a moment.

“Make it three, and we’ll make sure he stays put and no more breakouts.”

Toller made the best of the situation and agreed promptly. Dealing with Sophie Devereaux Ford in a snit made facing the Taliban a walk in the park in comparison. Nate, sitting with a mesmerised Lizzie on his lap, was very familiar with the expression on Toller’s face and decided to get the man a ticket to Sophie’s acting group’s production of ‘Kiss Me Kate.’ Then, he knew, Toller would understand the true meaning of pain.

Sophie raised a triumphant eyebrow.

“Hardison!”

Hardison, who had been sitting behind his bank of screens and trying to make himself as small as possible, jumped.

“Huh? Yeah?” Startled deer in headlights had nothing on Hardison.

“Get a list from the good doctor here, and make sure we have everything Eliot needs when we get him home. Parker??”

“Yep?” Parker let the word pop at the end, just for effect.

“You’re in charge of Eliot’s physio. You know the pillock won’t work with anyone else, so I want you up to speed on what exercises he’ll need to do, and –“

“Don’t I get a vote here –“ Eliot growled weakly, trying his best to sound fearsome. A bad move, he found out.

“A vote? A vote?? No. Absolutely not, you … you … dimwit!!” Sophie let the rant go, heartfelt and desperate. “You negated any vote when you decided to endanger yourself for no reason whatsoever this morning!! Don’t you ever think about how this affects us? Or worse still, how this might affect Lizzie? You’re her guardian. You’re her best friend, Eliot! The one person I know will protect her and take care of her, no matter what happens to the rest of us. And you cannot … cannot ever do something like this again.”

In the ensuing silence, she turned and lifted Lizzie from Nate’s lap. Then she leaned over and gently kissed a confused Eliot on the forehead.

She straightened and glared at the team and bemused doctor.

“So, now I am going to take my poor, starving daughter down to that revolting cafe and get us both some breakfast.”

And with that, Sophie sailed majestically out of the room, closing the door firmly behind her.

The silence returned, with every member of the team quietly cogitating on their place in the world. Toller returned to trying to tweak a tiny sliver of glass out of Eliot’s foot, which made the hitter twitch, not knowing whether to say ‘ouch’ or giggle because it tickled.

Eliot eyed the team. The team collectively eyed him back with expressions that ranged from ‘told you so’ to ‘you in big trouble now, bro!’

Eliot felt in need of a good bitchin’.

“Still think I shoulda got a vote –“ he groused, and then coughed. Without being told he crossed his arms to support his chest and ribs.

The resounding ‘Shut up, Eliot!!’ made Toller grin to himself.

“Man,” he murmured, more to himself than to Eliot, “You are so screwed!


The rain ran blearily down the window and wind battered the hospital building, but Hardison didn’t notice. He was a busy man, working at his little nerdy home-from-home as he did his research. He glanced over at Eliot, now resting quietly in his bed, dozing fitfully. The morning’s escapade had taken every ounce of strength out of him, but at least he was finally free of tubes and needles and other impingements on his battered frame. He was, however, back on oxygen, the nasal cannula just giving him a little boost while he recovered from his exertions.

Sam sat beside him, the big man a settling influence on Eliot, calming and quiet. Lizzie sat in her customary place beside Eliot and listened to Sam’s soothing maple-syrup voice as he read out loud to her from his paperback book, although, Hardison thought, perhaps the story of the battle for Stalingrad in the winter of 1942 wasn’t really age-appropriate. Oh well. At least Lizzie was having a well-rounded upbringing.

Parker was just being Parker, sitting upside down on the couch, head hanging over the seat, bopping along to some tune only she could hear.

Nate had gone with Sophie to get some decent coffee. Boy, the coffee in the hospital was dire.

Hardison, however, was really, really getting into Porsches. Or, rather, the onboard computer in Porsches. Oh yeah, baby


Danny needed desperately to get out of his apartment.

He had spent the night curled up on the couch in his living room, waiting … listening … dreading every sound, creak or noise. The skittering in the wall had not happened again, and he had talked himself into deciding it was a mouse.

But the remnants of the digital radio scattered on the floor in the kitchen haunted him, and as the rain began when the world lightened, he dressed, grabbed his car keys and ran from the apartment.

His Porsche was his baby. The one really bright spot in his life, and he loved just driving anywhere. So after such a difficult, haunting night, he decided to head out of Portland towards the coast and eat dinner that evening in a favourite restaurant. And, he thought, maybe it would be a good idea to stay overnight somewhere. Yes, he’d do that. Maybe tomorrow, things would be a little better and he could figure out what was going on. He wouldn’t put it past his father to mess with his head, he thought bitterly.

So as he drove south along Highway 101, the window cracked open so that the ozone from the sea cleared his head, he sang along to classic rock on KGON, loving the Eagles singing about heartbreak. He knew all about heartbreak. He thought about Mam then, knowing she would have hated the Porsche, but that would have been okay. As long as she loved him, then he wouldn’t have minded.

The radio fritzed for a second, and Danny swore under his breath. Damn this weather, causing havoc with reception. He changed channels for a moment, and then he was back on KGON, and he smiled as Glenn Frey’s soaring voice hit the chorus.

The radio fritzed again.

Cursing, Danny gave the radio a whack with the back of his hand while trying to keep an eye on the road. It didn’t work.

Instead, the radio went dead for a second, and then … and then … the dulcet, soft tones of Johnny Mathis singing Misty drifted from the speakers.

Danny shrieked.

The Porsche swerved on the slick, wet road, and it was only Danny wrenching the steering wheel and leaning into the swerve that stopped the vehicle from piling into a rock. He managed to bring the car to a halt on the shoulder on the other side of the road.

His fingers scrabbled at the radio controls, and he tried changing channels, but it didn’t work, because Johnny was still there, the song, soft and sweet and Mam’s favourite, played on and on and on

Danny burst from the car, a wail of terror wrenched from him, and not checking for traffic he ran as though the devil was on his heels.

So there he sat on the barrier overlooking the sea, panting with terror with the rain pelting down and drenching him to the skin, and stared at the Porsche. And from the open door he heard Johnny Mathis, his beautiful voice echoing through the drifting rain and fog, so sweet and glorious and singing just for Mam, and Danny McAllister Junior screamed.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


Hardison watched as Danny McAllister Junior came undone, saw the car swerve, and reaped the satisfaction of seeing the man shatter so completely as his revenge took hold.

The highway cameras had given the hacker a spectacular view of the result of his immaculately-timed hijacking of the computer system and GPS on the Porsche despite the rain and fog, and he had made sure that there had been no traffic in the vicinity, so no-one was endangered other than the nasty little shit McAllister himself.

He studied Eliot, now awake and drowsily talking quietly to Lizzie as she sat beside him, patting him oh-so-gently as if she knew her beloved grouch was so badly hurt. Eliot could have no better nurse than the little girl who would keep him still and quiet, allowing him to heal and to rest without the demons that had plagued him for decades crawling from the shadows of his mind.

Hardison looked again at Danny McAllister as he sat, terrified and shaking in the pouring rain, and his heart hardened. This man had almost robbed them of Eliot. His brother. The man who was Lizzie’s guardian, the one who would protect her – and the rest of them – until his dying day. And that day had come frighteningly close. Too close. Eliot was one of the most dangerous men alive, but at the end of the day he was only mortal, no matter that Hardison had long ago secretly decided Eliot was made of adamantium infused with a generous amount of grizzly bear and an extra serving of bad temper.

He was also quietly fierce both in love and kindness, and the most loyal of friends, no matter how hard he tried to hide it. And an absolute sucker when it came to Lizzie.

Which was why, Hardison decided, he could now move onto phase two. He wanted Junior off the streets. Just frightening the crap out of the creepy little psycho wasn’t enough.

“Nate?”

“Yeah?” Nate had been enjoying the food Sam had brought, sharing it with Sophie and Toller, who had figured out that if he turned up at the right time he would get a decent meal. Microwave dinners in his empty, lonely house could only just keep body and soul together. Sam had been delighted to make extra for the little doctor who had saved Eliot’s life.

“Do you have much on Senior? I’ve been concentratin’ on Junior, but I mean … if we could take both of ‘em down it would be a plus.”

Nate nodded.

“I have a nice, big juicy file I’ve been working on over the years here and there. I even had an insurance case involving him back in the day. I’ll bring it in tomorrow.”

Hardison shook his head.

“Nah, don’t worry about it. I’m gonna let Junior stew for a few days, an’ do the whole ‘false sense of security’ thing, so I thought I’d leave it until we get Eliot outta jail.” He glanced once more at Eliot. Lizzie was having a giggle-fit at something no-one else understood, and it had produced that special smile on Eliot’s battered face that he reserved only for Lizzie … a tiny half-hitch of a smile that made his laughter-lines appear. “He needs us right now. We gotta fix whatever is goin’ on in his crazy head an’ get him back on his feet, an’ it’ll give me time to figure out our next move. We got no time limit here.”

Nate nodded and rested a hand on Hardison’s shoulder. He looked at the multiple screens in front of the hacker, and smiled grimly, watching Danny McAllister fall apart.

“Y’know, Hardison – you’d make a fortune organising Halloween murder mysteries. Remind me never to get on your revengeful side.”

He stood for a moment and studied their young hacker. He hadn’t noticed before, but now he could see the exhaustion in dark, worried eyes and weariness in the tall frame. Nate frowned and pulling up a chair, sat down beside Hardison.

“Listen … you should go home for a bit. Eliot’s safe and it looks like he’s beginning to mend. Get some decent sleep. Couches are okay, but sleeping in your own bed will make the difference – trust me, I know.”

Hardison turned bleary eyes to Nate, finally acknowledging that the man was right – he was worn out. But he shook his head.

“I gotta do this, Nate,” he said doggedly. “You an’ Soph got Lizzie to look after an’ Parker an’ me … we gotta look out for the fool.” His eyes became intense, and Nate noticed something he had never thought to see in Hardison’s eyes. Hatred. This gentle, kind young man had learned to hate.

“Hardison … I think you’re right. I think you need to take a step back, let it go for a little while. Go home. I’ll be telling Parker the same thing when she gets back.”

Parker was driving the physiotherapist crazy by asking how to do the exercises Eliot would need when they got him home. But thankfully the nice, middle-aged lady was very tolerant, and understood the single-mindedness of this odd young woman and her drive to look after the scary man and the group of other odd people who had stormed a room in the hospital and made it theirs.

“That asshole hurt Eliot, Nate. Nearly goddamn killed him.” Hardison whispered harshly, the memory of that night when they found the hitter in the parking lot running rife through his mind. He would never … never … be able to shake off the feeling in his heart and soul when for a few seconds he thought Eliot was dead. Family meant the world to Hardison. His Nana had brought him up to treasure whatever he could when it came to family. Eliot was family.

Tickle us, do we not laugh … prick us, do we not bleed …and wrong us, shall we not revenge?” he murmured.

Nate smirked, bemused.

“Are you quoting Shakespeare now?”

Hardison’s tired face creased into a wry smile.

“General Chang, Star Trek; The Undiscovered Country. Kinda Shakespeare, I think.”

Nate shook his head, amused. Trust Hardison to use a Klingon as a moral compass and make it a good thing.

He slapped Hardison gently on the back.

“Pack this junk up and go home,” he said softly. “Sleep. Come back tomorrow. I’ll keep an eye on Eliot tonight.”

’Scuse me??” Hardison was affronted. “Junk? Did you jus’ call my babies junk?”

Nate grinned, his concern laced with humour.

“Jeez, Hardison. Rattle your cage, and you hit the bars every damn time,” he teased.

Hardison huffed, but kept his dignity intact even as he began to shut down the sophisticated interceptor equipment he had designed, based on the very secret and jealously-guarded firmware belonging to Homeland Security but with a few inspired additions of his own.

“Junk … I’ll give you junk … this stuff is state of the art … NSA ain’t got nothin’ on this, m’man … designed it my own self … damn’ FBI would kill to getta hold of it …” and as Hardison muttered to himself and began the work of packing away his kit, Nate eased from his chair and turned to look at the situation they had found themselves in.

Eliot, healing slowly but with a hard time ahead of him. Sophie, sitting with Sam and Toller, enjoying the hot meal and watching Lizzie as she began to droop sleepily against Eliot, who held her as well as he could … his best girl, he called her. Nate knew Parker was in interrogation mode, plaguing the physiotherapist.

Damn, he could do with a drink. But he didn’t drink these days. Nope, none of that. A coffee would do, but the hospital machine produced dishwater. Nate sighed. At least they were all alive, and together, and Eliot would be home soon. They had to look to the future.

But that would be after they had taken down Danny McAllister and his father. When they got back to Leverage International, he and Hardison would figure out how to take the McAllisters apart.


 

The three days Eliot had to wait before Toller allowed him to leave the hospital seemed like a lifetime.

He was allowed his crutches the following morning after his abortive ‘escape’, and this time Parker was in charge. After a good night’s sleep, the little thief was bristling with energy and raring to go, which is more than could be said for Eliot.

He was tired and still very sore, but if putting up with Parker’s unsympathetic attitude to physiotherapy got him out of this damn place, then he’d deal with it.

He even managed to put away some breakfast, courtesy of Parker, who had called in at a deli she knew Eliot loved and brought him an everything bagel with nova lox and a superb cream cheese … delicious, but easy on his still-delicate stomach. The accompanying Earl Grey tea was redolent with Bergamot and just what Eliot needed to begin work in earnest.

This time, with his leg braced and Parker hassling him every inch of the way to hold the dang crutches properly so that his ribs and chest weren’t compromised, Eliot managed to walk across the room and back to his bed, hurting every inch of the way, but as triumphant as hell.

After that, he had to endure the indignity of Parker putting him through exercises to deal with the pressure on the femoral nerve and to help prevent his muscles wasting.

There was a lot of lying flat on the bed while Parker made him hang the lower part of his bad leg over the edge while she pushed it firmly back and forth, which was apparently called ‘nerve flossing.’

“I ain’t a damn tooth, Parker! Ow!! Jesus!! You have a real nasty streak, you know that??”

Parker pushed his leg out straight and then made him look upwards.

“Oh, stop!” she said brusquely. “Get over it, you wuss! Doctor Walt says you’re up to it. And … stretch …

Ow-ow-ow-ow –

“Stop whining! Whatever happened to the strong-but-silent Eliot Spencer? Grow some spine, will you? It’s not that bad!”

Parker grinned wickedly. Normally Eliot would have been as stoic as hell, especially with the nurses and the hospital physiotherapist, but with Parker he could relax and let rip.

“You are just a nasty, vicious harpy, Parker, you know that, don’t you? You like hurtin’ people. Hell, you just like hurtin’ me! An’ –shit – wait-wait-wait –“

“And … hold … one-two-three and … relax …”

“When I get back on my feet I am never gonna make you Chocolat Religieuse ever again –“

Parker looked at him with ill-concealed glee.

“Phooey.” She said. “aaaand stretch …”

GODDAMIT PARKER!!

That’s more like it!” Parker commented, grinning.

“You … you’re friggin’ enjoying this –“

“Oooooh yeah …”

Eliot dropped his head back on his pillow and groaned. He was in hell.


The day Eliot walked out of the hospital on his own two feet was a memorable one.

He was only allowed to walk from the elevator to the big entry doors and out into the cool, crisp day beyond where Lucille waited, but for Eliot it was the first indication that he might just have a future.

It was less than two weeks since he had been attacked and left for dead, but here he was, battered and walking with crutches and a leg brace, but he was on the move and to hell with the goddamn wheelchair.

He could now see out of both eyes, although his face was still a myriad of colourful, fading bruises, and his chest was clear and healing. Another catch-up MRI had told Toller that the incision in Eliot’s back was mending, and the easing of pressure was beginning to help with the healing of the nerve. It might take a few months, Toller told him, but the nerve damage should repair itself.

There had been a caveat, however. There may be pain, Toller had reiterated, and it may never fade. Exercises would help, and Eliot now used a TENS machine which eased the perennial ache, so it would just be another issue to deal with. But … he could be left with a limp.

Eliot wouldn’t allow that, he decided. He would fight the idea of any kind of weakness with his entire being, and, dammit, Parker would help him with her unique, if somewhat demanding form of physiotherapy. But it would be a long haul. He didn’t know how he could protect his team in the meantime.

However, that was to be figured out later. But not today. Today was a day of triumph. Of winning. Of getting the hell out of this friggin’ hospital.

Toller was waiting by Lucille, arms crossed as always, smiling at the hitter as he slowly made his way outside, his family beside him, all of them letting Eliot do his own thing but there if he needed them.

Surgeon and hitter faced each other for long moments.

“Come back next week, Eliot. Just for me to keep an eye on how the leg and that wound in your back’re doing, okay?”

Eliot studied the little doctor who had saved his life … what was it … three times now, if he included that time in Iraq? He nodded slowly, and quirked a small smile.

“See you then, Doc. An’ thanks,” he added softly. “For everything. I owe you.”

Toller snorted.

“Hey, I’d do it all again if I got to eat as well as I have these past couple of weeks.”

“Come by the brewpub. We’ll always feed you, free of charge.”

“So I’ve been told. I don’t deserve it, but I’m not going to turn down the offer. The food’s fantastic. Oh, and I’m not too sure where the new coffee machine in the acute unit came from, but I have a sneaky suspicion you guys have something to do with it.” Toller sighed contentedly. “Latte. On tap. Free.”

Nate shook Toller’s hand.

“Had to do something, Doc. That stuff you had was vile.”

“I wish we could do something about the food though,” Sophie said, Lizzie safe in her arms but reaching out for Eliot, who turned his head and allowed her to pat his face. Lizzie chortled. Her Eliot was here, so all was well.

Hardison, tactile, generous Alec, opened his arms and gave Toller a hug.

“Thanks Doc, for lookin’ after the dumb-ass. I know he’s a pain, but he’s worth it. Come by next week an’ we’ll celebrate. Bridgeport Brewery. Sam’ll cook us all somethin’ special.”

Toller nodded.

“That’d be great. I can check on Eliot then. Save him coming back to the hospital seeing as he has such an aversion to them.”

That earned him a pained “Dammit, Doc!

“Doctor Walt!” Parker launched herself at Toller, who by now wasn’t so startled by Parker’s enthusiasm when it came to hugs and the people she loved … and Toller was one of the few people on the planet whom Parker decided that she loved. She squeezed him breathless. “Thank you!”

When she finally let him go, Toller was crimson, but charmed.

“You’re very welcome, Miss Parker.”

Parker grinned her Cheshire cat grin. She knew that to Toller, she would always be Miss Parker, just as he was Doctor Walt, and she felt a warm, squishy belonging-little-sister-feeling in her tummy whenever he said it, as though she was someone really special, but in a good way.

Eliot was getting noticeably tired, so the team as one descended on him and very gently managed to ease him into Lucille’s passenger seat. Parker put a cushion between the seatbelt and Eliot’s chest, to ease the pressure. And, Eliot decided, he was grateful for it as the sheer effort of getting into Lucille had taken the last reserves of his strength.

Hardison clambered into the driver’s seat, and waited until everyone was settled, and then turned on the engine, Lucille’s mechanical purr music to his ears. He looked over at Eliot, who sat with his head against the headrest, tired but content.

“Y’okay?” he asked.

Eliot hummed wordlessly, but Hardison knew what he meant.

He grinned.

“Good,” he said. “Let’s go home.”

And easing Lucille into gear, Hardison drove out onto the highway and set a course for Leverage International.


God, it was good to be back, Hardison decided as he settled down at his desk and powered up his equipment, the monitors bursting into life.

They were all staying at HQ for the next few days, settling into their own rooms and letting Eliot take each day as it came. Sam had cooked them all a welcome home meal, and even Eliot had managed a small plateful even though his appetite was far from normal.

After that he had gone to bed. There he discovered that an extra mattress had been added to the bed so he could manage to get up in the night for bathroom visits, and he had an assortment of books and a television set up so he could relax without exerting himself too much. He just wanted to sleep.

Nate helped him this first night to get settled, and within minutes he was out like a light. Leaving the door ajar in case they were needed, Nate wandered back to the meeting area in the big office.

Hardison swung around in his chair.

“Nate … I think I got somethin’.” Hardison didn’t often look grim, but he did right now.

Sophie looked up from the big couch where she was finally finding the time to relax with ginger tea and a magazine, now that Lizzie was fed and bedded for the night. But this sounded far more interesting. She stood and wandered over to sit beside Hardison as Nate peered over the hacker’s shoulder.

“What is it?” she asked, curious. “Is it Junior?”

“Sorta,” Hardison said, pointing at three different windows open on the screen. “Hang on … gonna put this up on the plasma …”

And seconds later the huge screen came to life, and the three windows popped up, larger than life. Each of them looked like a litany of text-messages.

“Junior must be with his shitty sidekicks. I’ve set up his cell to clone any ‘phones nearby, an’ these just came up. They must all be in the same car or somethin’, ’cause I got near on a week’s worth of messages here. An’ bingo – look at this.”

Nate quickly read through them, and whistled.

There were mentions of ‘merchandise,’ and dates and times, and Junior’s mention of financing the deal. Nothing incriminating on the face of it, but it looked interesting.

“He’s doing a deal,” Nate said. “And I’m guessing his father doesn’t know about it. There’s nothing from Senior here at all. Any ideas what it could be? The last text from Junior was just minutes ago, so can you ping his cell?”

“Already done,” Hardison replied smugly. “He’s near a storage unit near Powell Boulevard.” He brought up a street plan of the Midway Business District, and a small red blip pulsated gently.

“Any CCTVs you can access?” Sophie interjected.

“Oh yeah!” Hardison countered, and his hands skimmed over the keyboard. “The benefits of my beautiful and sexy BIOS malware, people! All I gotta do is find their incursion vulnerabilities an’ … hey presto!” He gave a little jazz-hands flourish.

Black-and-white images resolved onto the screen, and once again, there was Junior, looking a little jumpy, but more confident with his three goons around him as they wandered across a parking lot. But no matter how hard he tried, Hardison couldn’t find an angle which could tell him where they were going.

“That’s one of the guys that hurt Eliot!” Parker hissed angrily, making Sophie jump. The thief had appeared from nowhere, as was her wont, but even after six years she could still startle Sophie.

“Dear god, Parker! Don’t do that!” Sophie calmed her beating heart and peered at the figures on the screen. “What are they doing?”

Nate squinted, but could see no more than Hardison could.

“No idea. But we know where they are, right?”

Hardison nodded.

“Yeah, but Nate … I don’t want any of us near that place if we can help it. El’s fretting enough about not being able to keep us safe according to his standards, so leave it with me. As I said, we got some time before we need to move on this. By the look of these texts we got a week or two. Let’s be safe, man. An’ let me do my magic, okay? Anyhoo, Eliot needs us right now.”

“Yes, I agree,” Sophie added, the frown lines back on her face at the mention of Eliot. “He’s happy he’s home, but that won’t last long. He’s facing a lot of pain, Nate. A lot of self-doubt. And possibly that he won’t ever be able to do his job again – at least, the job as he sees it.”

“He’ll come right, you’ll see,” Nate had to disagree. “He’s Eliot. He won’t let it beat him. And we can’t afford to let this –“ he gestured at the screen, “- go. I’ve wanted to take down McAllister for years, and now we have the opportunity. Eliot wouldn’t want us to wait just on his account.”

Sophie could see the cogs turning in Nate’s head. He wanted the McAllisters. He needed to make them pay, not just because of what Junior had done to Eliot – although that was bad enough – but what they had done to countless others.

But Sophie also knew it was part of Nate’s obsessive makeup that he just couldn’t let go.

“No. We’ll wait,” she said quietly but firmly. “I want to wait. I want Eliot to be safe and able to heal without worrying about anything more than he has to. I want us to be safe. And more than anything, I want Lizzie to be safe. And we can only do that of we take the time to plan. I don’t want to fly by the seat of our pants on this one, and we don’t have Eliot to catch us when we screw up, because we will screw up if we don’t approach this properly.”

Nate looked at Sophie, and saw the raw worry on her face. And then he looked at Hardison and Parker, and saw the wariness in their eyes. This time, Eliot came first. And, Nate realised, they were right.

He thought for a moment, and then nodded his assent.

“Okay. You’re right. Absolutely, you’re all right. We wait. And then, when we’re ready – when we’ve planned and we know we can do this safely, we’ll go get ‘em. Agreed?”

Hardison smiled.

“Works for me. Now, I’m gonna find out just what the hell Junior’s up to.”

So that’s exactly what he did.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


Hardison awoke to the smell of dry-cured maple-smoked bacon grilling and the clatter of pans in the kitchen. And there was something else … what was it? Oh god. Pancakes. Eliot was cooking marionberry pancakes, and man, that meant cream cheese and berry filling with just a hint of orange blossom honey and – wait. Eliot was cooking.

“Goddammit, Eliot –“ he growled, and scrambling out of his warm, comfy bed and throwing on sweats and a tee, he headed to the kitchen.

Eliot was seated behind the breakfast counter on a stool, one crutch leaning against a cupboard and the other nowhere to be seen, and he was laboriously stacking big, fat, juicy pancakes just packed with that oh-so-good filling in-between each one. The coffee was ready and the aroma was amazing, and there was Lizzie in her high chair watching Eliot do his thing, and Hardison loved Eliot’s marionberry pancakes, because they were just heaven on a plate an’ –

“What the hell are you doin’??” the hacker demanded angrily, voice raspy with the aftermath of sleep.

Eliot, who has obviously managed to dress himself after having a shower, his still-damp hair curling in the kitchen heat, didn’t even bother looking up.

“Makin’ breakfast. What does it look like?” he answered. “Duh,” he added, making his point. He handed Lizzie a spare marionberry. She grinned, lips, tongue and hands already stained blue-black, and shoved the fruit into her mouth, chewing noisily.

“And how in hell did you carry Lizzie?? You coulda dropped her, El!!!” Hardison gestured wildly at the crutch. “An’ where’s the other crutch?? You’re supposed to be usin’ both of ‘em, man!! An’ another thing –“

M’fine,” Eliot muttered, still concentrating on his pancakes and not looking at Hardison. “Couldn’t sleep. Had a shower … the seat worked fine, by the way … Soph was awake and I said I’d keep an eye on ‘Lizbeth Grace so she could get another half-hour’s sleep.” He glanced sideways at Lizzie, who was obviously hoping for another marionberry. “We got bored,” he said and smiled at Lizzie, who rattled off something in baby-speak in agreement.

“So you decided to cook?” Hardison shook his head in confusion. “You just got outta hospital yesterday after nearly dyin’ on us, an’ you’re cookin’??? You’re supposed to be healin’ up, man, not makin’ pancakes!

“Who’s making pancakes?” Parker said as she ambled towards them, yawning. “Ooohhh!!! Marionberries!”

She snaffled a couple from the bowl on the kitchen surface and stuffed them in her mouth. Her eyes closed and she almost purred with pleasure at the tart, scrumptious sweetness.

Eliot carried on, slowly but meticulously, stacking pancakes layered with creamy deliciousness with the view to sectioning the pile into servings. The rest of the cream cheese with honey and berries was already gleaming lusciously in its bowl, and Hardison’s mouth watered.

“’Stead of buggin’ my ass about it,” Eliot said quietly, “set places, will ya? Can’t do it, so …”

“Where’s your other crutch??” Parker had finally noticed the lack of Eliot-support. “You’re not supposed –“

Yeah!” Eliot snapped hoarsely, and then took a steadying breath and his voice softened. “I know. In my bedroom. Only need one.”

“Idiot!” Parker hissed and disappeared for a few moments, reappearing a minute later with the errant crutch, leaving it next to its mate. She leaned over Eliot’s shoulder to snaffle another berry. “Use it, Eliot! Or else!

Eliot looked deathly tired, Hardison thought as he retrieved plates and cutlery and laid place settings on the breakfast bar. He supposed the pancake thing was just Eliot’s way of gettin’ back into his groove, but damn, he was pushing his luck.

Sophie and Nate wandered in finally, completing their impromptu team breakfast, and the look of dismay on their faces was hard to ignore. Sophie glared daggers at Hardison who pointed at himself and made nothing-to-do-with-me gestures.

“Eliot … what’s with the pancakes? Seriously? You’re only just –“ Nate started up.

“ – outta hospital, yeah, Nate, I know. I’m the one with the crippled leg, remember?” Eliot’s voice had that don’t-push-me growl in it, but Nate, as always, couldn’t – or wouldn’t - take the hint.

“We brought you home so you could heal up, man, so why don’t you –“

Eliot’s head snapped up, eyes suddenly blazing a glittering, hot blue, and he was washed-out pale, whether with anger or exhaustion, Nate didn’t know.

“ – an’ why don’t you just sit down, Nate, and eat your damn pancakes, okay???”

The sudden silence was beyond uncomfortable for long moments, until Hardison, taking his life in his hands by imposing on Eliot’s creative space, lifted a plate and began unloading the crisp, juicy bacon from the grill, letting it rest on kitchen paper to soak up any grease. He set the plate down before Eliot, and then began filling coffee cups.

“Anyone want tea instead? I’ll get Lizzie her juice,” he said quietly, and then arranged the bowl of creamed cheese filling and the serving spoon ready for breakfast. He looked at Eliot steadily, eyes calm. “Anythin’ else I can do?”

Eliot took a few deep breaths and let his muscles relax, wincing as the now-throbbing pain in his leg tried to overwhelm him.

“Let’s eat,” he said, his voice husky with stress, but he was calmer now, and even let Hardison cut the pancake pile into portions. He wouldn’t admit it, but his hands were shaking and he didn’t trust himself with the frighteningly sharp Shun knife.

The pancakes were, as always, delicious. Eliot liked to add buckwheat flour and slivers of dark chocolate to make them a little less liable to set off Parker’s sugar highs and to make the food healthier, but both Parker and Lizzie loved them.

Breakfast, after the rocky start, settled into amiable arguments and soft laughter, and everyone purposefully stayed away from any mention of the McAllisters. Lizzie kept Eliot relaxed and even smiling, and the initial tension had dissipated by the time Sophie and Nate washed and put away dishes and utensils.

Eliot lifted his crutches and managed to get to his feet, and they could all see how stiff and sore he was from sitting for too long on the stool, but they let him be.

As the rest of the team went about their business, they watched Eliot work his way back to his bedroom … watched as he stopped a few times to adjust his grip on the crutches, either through trying to make sure his grip was firm or because the pain became too much in his leg and the sweat was making his grip slick.

Hardison was convinced it was the latter, and he was even more sure of it when Parker decided it was time for Eliot’s physio, and the hitter gruffly but kindly told her to get lost. He was going to rest up for an hour, he informed her, and then he would be ‘fine,’ the Eliot Spencer catch-all word for ‘I’m fallin’ to pieces, dammit, so leave me alone!”

Parker, not usually au fait with other people’s feelings or obtuse messages, understood this one and backed off.

“Well, that didn’t last long,” Nate murmured to Sophie as he poured himself another coffee.

Sophie chewed her lip, thinking.

“And this is just the beginning,” she replied quietly. “When he was in the hospital he was one step removed from having to face his future. Now he’s home, he has nowhere to hide. He has to look his fate squarely in the face. We know he’s going to be alright, no matter what … but he doesn’t. His standards for himself are different from our expectations of him. His self-worth is all wrapped up in this team … and, god help me, Lizzie.”

Nate frowned, not quite getting it.

“Us? What did we do?”

Sophie sighed in exasperation. Sometimes Nate, for all of his brilliance, could be incredibly dense.

“Oh, Nate … we made him care.” She fished out a teabag from her stash, popped it into her warmed teapot and poured in boiling water. “We keep harping on about family, about how important he is to us, and about how much a part of us he is. We made him rely on us to give him a purpose. We became his heart … we forced him to love us just as we love him, and it has cost him more that I would care to admit. We became his humanity. And it’s up to us to make good on our promise to him.”

Nate sipped his coffee, thinking.

“So … rather than take a step back and let him heal, like he wants us to, we have to get up close and personal. We have to push him. Hard.” He shook his head. “That’s not something you do to Eliot Spencer, Sophie. He’ll push back. He’ll leave.”

Sophie shook her head.

“No, he won’t. That’s not how he works. He’s withstood some of the worst torture, the most appalling situations … the most desperate and harsh punishment ever invented, in the most dangerous places in the world – and he’s still here. The more you push Eliot, the more stubborn he gets. And,” she added, almost as an afterthought, “we have a secret weapon.”

Nate raised his eyebrows in a silent question.

Sophie smiled, brown eyes suddenly alive with the joy of the grift.

“We have Lizzie,” she said.


Hardison spent most of the day reading through Nate’s file on Danny McAllister Senior. It covered over two decades of records, and only the past eighteen months weren’t covered. Probably due, Hardison guessed, to the arrival of Miss Elizabeth Grace Ford.

The records, as was Nate’s habit, were meticulous, annotated and detailed. But one glaring omission was any involvement of Junior in his father’s business. It would have been perfectly feasible for Junior not to exist at all, if not for one or two mentions of Junior in memos and a few interestingly large sums of money being paid to lawyers and one or two payments to private citizens.

Nate had, of course, checked them out, and none of the recipients had any association with Senior. They were upstanding, decent people – all male – who had one thing in common. They were all victims of particularly vicious muggings. None of the incidents had gone to trial. In fact, no-one had been identified by the victims as the perpetrators. All had been drinking in bars, and the victims were all found in parking lots outside those bars. Just like Eliot, Hardison thought.

Obviously, they had been paid off by Senior to get Junior off the hook. Simple, and not uncommon in these kinds of wealthy but dysfunctional father-son relationships. Hardison looked at Junior’s bank accounts and checked dates. For a month after each payment to victims, no money had been transferred to Junior’s accounts by his father.

Hardison snorted. Senior was trying to bench his son in an attempt to teach him a lesson. Obviously it hadn’t worked, probably because Junior really didn’t care about his father’s disapproval.

So … Junior’s situation with his father was undoubtedly parasitic – he fed off his father’s wealth and gave nothing back. But Junior, if the uncomfortable breakfasts Hardison had witnessed between father and son were any indication, resented his father’s refusal to give him any power. It made sense. Junior wanted power, so he was going to strike out on his own.

But what was his plan?

Merchandise. What kind of merchandise? Drugs? Hardison doubted it. Junior was a nut-job, but he wasn’t stupid. That was all sewn up in Portland, despite the PPB’s dogged and thorough determination to stamp it out, and narcotics were also high-profile. Danny would probably be going for something a little more discreet for his first stand-alone venture.

Hmm. It would be low key, relatively straightforward, and financially beneficial without being too overboard. Human trafficking? Nope, Hardison thought. That was more prevalent in the coastal big cities, especially further down on the west coast, plus it was also a complex operation needing partners abroad and heavy investment in manpower and transport.

Hardison began looking into Junior’s contacts and associates, and although he didn’t think Senior’s contacts would have much to do with Junior, it would be worth a look. After all, bad guys usually didn’t have much in the way of scruples when it came to making money.

He had work to do. But he couldn’t resist pulling Junior’s chain just a little bit.


Parker gave Eliot two hours to rest up, and then she opened his firmly-closed bedroom door and stood in the doorway.

“Eliot – it’s time.”

The room was dark, curtains pulled.

“Go away, Parker. M’sleepin’.” Eliot’s voice was drowsy.

“You’re not now,” she answered briskly. She sounded disgustingly cheerful. “Physio-time,” she sang, and switched on the light.

Eliot was lying on his bed, hands folded over his stomach, eyes closed. He looked a bit like death warmed up. He opened one eye and squinted.

“I said … go away.”

“Not going to happen,” Parker said happily.

Eliot’s face set into that expression that said ‘If you don’t leave me alone I will turn you into teeny tiny pieces of bantha fodder’, or, at least, that was how Hardison interpreted it.

Dammit, Parker –“

“Stop with the grouchies, Mister Punchy. You have to do your exercises twice a day and it’s already nearly midday, so rise and shine, you ol’ sour-puss, you!”

Eliot let out a noisy, over-the-top sigh.

“O-kay!! Pass me my crutches, will ya?”

“Did you put ‘em there?” Parker asked, looking at the crutches leaning against the bedside cabinet, just a little bit of a stretch for the hitter.

Eliot frowned as he eased himself upright, wincing, and managed to swing his legs down onto the floor.

“Yeah. So?”

Parker crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes.

“You put ‘em there … you get ‘em,” she ordered.

Eliot scowled at her disbelievingly.

Seriously?

Parker didn’t answer. She just stood there, arms crossed, grinning like the vindictive harridan she was.

“Sonofa …” Eliot sighed, and then, muttering dire and earthshattering threats under his breath, worked his way sideways to reach his crutches.

Parked nodded in approval.

“See? You can do it if you try. I’ll meet you in the gym in five minutes.”

And then she was gone, leaving a disgruntled and tired Eliot to drag himself to his feet.


The gym was really no more than an exercise area Eliot had set up in the large storeroom once used by the previous occupants for keeping office supplies and surplus furniture. But what it lacked in roominess it more than made up for in the quality of the equipment. Eliot didn’t need much to keep himself in top shape, using mostly work-out mats and a punch-bag, with some weights neatly stacked in the corner. He had also installed a small refrigerator stocked with bottled water and a cupboard for a medikit and strapping, tape and other accoutrements used in battering the hell out of a punch-bag.

However, when he entered the room he immediately noticed a new addition – a height-adjustable therapy table, complete with cushions.

“Damn,” he said to himself. Parker was serious about putting him through hell.

“Okay, Eliot! Let’s rock!”

Parker stood beside the table, a chortling Lizzie resting on her hip.

“Lizzie’s helping,” she said by way of explanation.

Lizzie thought the expression of utter dismay on Eliot’s face was priceless.


Danny McAllister Junior was enjoying his lunch. Life was improving a little – his father wasn’t hassling him at the moment, his little project was coming along nicely, and his father’s contact had come up with the goods. A deal was getting closer, and his man in Qatar was coming to Portland in a week or so. And best of all, he hadn’t had any more of those creepy-as-shit episodes that had led him to think he was losing his mind.

He savoured the slow-cooked tavern chili and kept an eye on the television behind the bar. Televisions made him nervous, but all this one showed was sports highlights. He began to relax and enjoy the commentary from the two enthusiastic pundits about the prospects for the Portland Winterhawks this season, and whether they had a chance to repeat their success of the previous season in reaching the playoffs and then the final.

Danny worked his way through the chili, enjoying the rich, deep flavour, and smiled as he watched Brendan Leipsic power his way to the CHL Top Scorer Award. He loved ice hockey.

The television fritzed.

Danny blanched.

And just for a second or two he saw a dark figure, fedora tipped forward, with moon-lipid eyes glittering against the midnight background. The thing smiled.

And then all was back the way it had been, and Leipsic scored another goal and the crowd erupted, and Danny stood up so quickly his chair tipped back onto the floor and he knocked his food, plate and all, over the tablecloth.

The waiter would remember long years later the look of sheer, unadulterated terror on Danny McAllister Junior’s face as he stumbled away from the table, staggered out onto the street and ran as though the very devil was after him.


“C’mon Eliot, you can do better than that!” Parker chided, obviously having the time of her friggin’ life, Eliot thought, as he walked from one side of the gym to the other, trying hard to keep the sole of his bad foot flat on the floor and resisting the temptation to use just the ball of his foot and his toes. Forcing the leg to work was goddamn agony.

The crutches hurt his hands and he wasn’t wearing the brace so that he had to use the trembling muscles of his bad leg. He was drenched with sweat, and he hurt.

He gritted his teeth, pushed on and reached the other side of the room, where he sagged and rested his forehead against the wall.

Parker dragged over a chair and helped him sit down, and he had never been so grateful for anything in his life. She took a bottle of water out of the refrigerator, cracked the cap and handed it to Eliot, who poured the contents down his throat in three gulps.

Once his heart had stopped pounding and the world had stopped tipping, Eliot wiped his brow with his sleeve and looked up at Parker. She was looking at a stop-watch.

“You were timin’ me?” he asked incredulously.

“Well, yeah!” she replied as though it was the most normal thing in the world to time how long it took a broken, crippled ol’ ex-soldier to walk from one side of a room to the other.

Lizzie was watching from an exercise mat Parker had laid down in the corner of the room, and she smiled a toothy smile at Eliot. Exhausted and irate as he was, he smiled back at his best girl. She could always make the day seem better.

“Lizzie’s turn!” Parker declared. Lifting Lizzie from her mat, Parker walked to the other side of the room and set Lizzie back on the floor. Crouching down beside her, she gave Lizzie her instructions.

“Okay, Lizzie. Go to Eliot.”

And before Parker could get to her feet, Lizzie was off, shuffling across the room on her backside, little legs shoving her backwards towards Eliot. Lizzie didn’t crawl. She did the Ford Shuffle, and she was mighty quick about it, as Eliot found out when Lizzie reached his feet and raised her arms to be lifted.

“Don’t you dare!” Parker scolded as Eliot bent down to lift Lizzie onto his lap, and instead she did it for him. Lizzie draped herself over Eliot’s chest, burrowing into his shoulder as she always did. He sighed. Lizzie was balm to his soul.

Parker was studying her stop-watch, and she snorted in amusement.

“What?” Eliot mumbled past Lizzie’s snuggling.

“Lizzie is 5.3 seconds faster than you, Eliot. A baby can shuffle on her ass faster than you. I want you to do better than that tomorrow, okay?”

Eliot frowned, disbelieving.

“You’re kiddin’ me. She can’t be faster. She’s only eleven months old, dammit!”

Parker shrugged.

“So … do better tomorrow,” was her only comment.

“Tomorrow?” Eliot growled. “To hell with that! Take her!”

And passing a protesting Lizzie to Parker, Eliot grabbed his crutches, levered himself to his feet and headed off across the room.

 

To be continued …

 

 

 

Chapter Text


The next morning, Eliot knocked 3.2 seconds off Lizzie’s speed record. He stood straighter and settled his grip, controlled his breathing and secured his balance before he set off across the gym, Parker watching him, stop-watch ticking.

This time, Lizzie decided she wanted to have fun keeping up with Eliot, and her delighted laughter as he encouraged her to shuffle alongside him made Parker smile knowingly and Eliot allowed himself a raspy chuckle, taking his mind off the pain and effort he was putting himself through.

The physiotherapy to keep his muscles from atrophying was not quite so pleasant, however, and Parker was an absolute monster at pushing Eliot beyond his limit. A legendary (and somewhat scary) stoic, he was normally in full agreement that if it didn’t hurt then it wasn’t doing any good, but the lingering numbness and never-ending excruciating pins and needles were a killer.

So, for once, Eliot put his stoicism to one side and let Parker know about it. During the following days he growled, bitched and snarled, which, of course, Parker ignored, because that was just Normal Eliot. So then he tried – unsuccessfully – to simply escape. Parker took his crutches away until he did as he was told.

His next ploy was not turning up for his physio at all. Parker just took the physio to him, and Eliot realised it was a helluva lot more painful when Parker – very gently and carefully and with surprising skill and strength for someone so slender – tackled him flat onto the couch and sat Lizzie on his stomach to keep him there as Parker did nasty, vindictive, bendy things to his damaged leg.

He was even reduced to the lowest of the low, which, to his unending embarrassment, was yelling for Hardison to rescue him as he flailed uselessly on the couch.

Hardison, earphones on as he allowed the haunting beauty of Ry Cooder’s slide guitar blues haunt his soul, was busy trying to hack into secure servers belonging to an associate of Danny McAllister Senior, a man with vague contacts in the military, and all he saw at the edge of his vision was a gesticulating arm. He absent-mindedly waved back and carried on with his investigation.

Eliot slumped back on the cushions as Parker calmly carried on her wicked, fiendish ways, as she extended his aching and sensitive leg. His damn nerves were being flossed to death.

“ … aaand … hold … one … two … three …”

GODDAMMIT PARKER!!” Eliot finally grated desperately, sweating with the pain of it and clenching his fists.

Parker only arched an eyebrow and carried on.

“ … aaaand … relax …”

Lizzie leaned forward from where she sat on Eliot’s stomach and glared at him even as he began to curl his lip into a feral snarl.

She lifted her hand, index finger vaguely extended in a facsimile of Eliot’s ‘Shush-or-die’ gesture, and held it up in front of her face so Eliot could see it and take the hint that quietness should ensue.

“Boff,” she said, very seriously.

Boff?? What the hell did that mean?

“That’s Lizzie-speak for ‘shut the hell up’ said Nate, coffee in hand and peering down at the stricken hitter. “She began it yesterday. Seems she now uses the word for everything,” he added.

“Hmmm …” Parker pondered. “A bit like ‘I am Groot,’ only shorter.”

“What … what the hell is a Groot??” Eliot asked, exasperated beyond belief as he lay helplessly pinned to the couch by an eleven-month-old. The Butcher of Kiev had nothing on Lizzie.

“I thought you could speak ‘baby’,” Parker critiqued, preparing for one more round of torture as she gently but firmly made sure Eliot would end up with a leg that worked as well as possible.

Lizzie cackled at Eliot’s mystified expression, and then did a controlled face-plant onto his chest just for fun. She wasn’t to know that he had three healing ribs, but Eliot held her anyway even though Lizzy was growing into a solid little bugger and he had to stifle a grunt of pain as his ribs objected.

It took her all of thirty seconds to slip into a deep, dreamless sleep, lulled by the steady thump of Eliot’s heart. As she lay there, boneless and twitching, Parker decided Eliot had had enough for one day and patted his knee, telling him to relax.

Eliot closed his eyes in relief. The pins and needles were persistent and never-ending, and coupled with the pain from the healing nerve which felt like acid was being pumped into his leg, the damage made sleep very difficult for him. But Lizzie was warm and solid, grounding him, and as the stress slowly drifted away, he slipped into a light doze.

Nate sipped his coffee as he headed over to see what Hardison was up to, but he stole one final glance at his baby daughter and her guardian. Just lately, Eliot, who refused even the mildest painkillers, only seemed able to rest when Lizzie was there to take care of him, cheery soul that she was.

He watched as Parker gently slid Lizzie sideways so that she was tucked between the couch and Eliot’s broad chest, and draped a comforter over the pair of them.

“Boff … “ Lizzie muttered in her sleep, and Eliot instinctively tightened his hold, making sure she was safe and sound even as he slumbered.

“Keep it up, sweetheart,” he whispered to himself. “Work your magic.”

And smiling softly, he headed over to Hardison and his bank of geeky goodness.


“There’s somethin’ hinky goin’ on here, Nate, but I’m damned if I can track it down. Well, not yet, anyway. We got Homeland Security standard firewalls an’ layers an’ layers of protocols that’re goin’ to take me a month of Sundays to work through.”

Nate frowned, finishing his coffee as he peered over Hardison’s shoulder.

“So, who is this again?”

He knew Hardison had been going through the file on Senior with a fine toothcomb, and if there was anything useful in there, Hardison would winkle it out. He was a phenomenal lateral thinker when it came to unravelling the mysteries of sophisticated computerised systems.

“Chet Morris. Hometown boy made good, fingers in lots of Texas pies.”

Nate’s face cleared.

“Ah, Chet,” he murmured. “Worked his way through college, majored in acoustics … has a doctorate in mechanical engineering as well as aerospace engineering from MIT. He has an interest in - “

“ – wave propagation,” Hardison finished. “His company’s been playin’ around with acoustic metamaterials, which is … interesting … “

“How so? And what are acoustic metamaterials?”

“Okay … to keep it simple, it’s material designed to control, direct, an’ manipulate sound waves. His company works mainly on things like loudspeaker design, architectural acoustics, that sort of stuff, but I tracked ‘phone calls from Junior to Chet’s private ‘phone. Chet knows Senior socially, they play golf together. So, it follows that Junior got to him through his dad.”

“Why do I get a feeling there’s a pie here that we should be poking a finger into?” Nate murmured to himself. “Why would an upstanding, industrious soul who donates money to worthy causes, plays Pro-Am golf with hoodlums and politicians and moves in all of the right circles be chatting to a psychotic little weasel like Junior?”

Hardison didn’t have an answer for that one right now, but the way in would be through Junior’s cell ‘phone. It would be easy enough to piggy-back on the service provider and listen in on calls.

“I want to know what he’s up to over at Zenith Acoustics that he’s trying to hide. You said he has high-stat firewalls,” Nate pondered. “Patents … yeah, they’re worth a fortune, but this has a national security smell about it. But he’s not doing razor-edge ground-breaking stuff for the military … or is he? Is there any way we can look at a plan of the building? See what space he’s using and for what?”

“Yeah, I can do that. But he’s got one helluva level of encryption goin’ on just to protect a bunch of sophisticated speakers an’ sound systems. I need to know why he’s talkin’ to Junior,” Hardison said. “The little runt’ll have an angle – I can’t see a man like Chet Morris hangin’ with a dude like Junior for the fun of it. I’ll run a police and security check and dig around on both dark an’ deep webs, see what nasty habits Chet has. Junior would need somethin’ on him, I’m thinkin’.”

“Works for me,” Nate agreed, thinking. “Hmmm …” he pondered, “controlling sound waves … sounds a little Star Trekky to me, but …” he shrugged. “I’m not the expert here.”

Hardison chewed a gummy frog for a moment or two.

“I’m gonna hazard a guess here an’ suppose, although this is purely hypothetical, that Chet-boy is playin’ around with some sort of USW – entirely under the radar, mind, ‘cause although he has a few contacts in the military, Zenith don’t have any kind of contract with the DoD an’ Chet has never even tendered for a deal. For Junior to have an interest … it’s gotta be out of the government’s reach. Somethin’ he can make lots of money out of.”

“USW?” Nate asked, heading off for another coffee.

Hardison pursed his lips before answering.

“Ultra-sonic weapon.”

“Good grief!” Sophie said as she settled down beside Hardison. “Can they do things like that?”

Hardison smirked, eyes warm with humour.

“Absolutely, girl! They’ve been around in some form or another for decades, an’ sonic disruptors are used by god knows how many police forces around the world to deal with crowd dispersal. Hell, a cruise ship off the coast of Somalia back in ‘05 used an LRAD to chase off pirates. An’ that’s a long-range acoustic device, by the way,” he added smugly by way of explanation.

“So … that begs the question of why Mister Chet Morris would have such high levels of security to protect technology that is already in general use?” Sophie murmured thoughtfully.

“That’s my point. You can actually buy the things on ebay and Amazon,” Hardison added. “So … it’s gotta be somethin’ else … somethin’ probably illegal an’ immoral, if not fattening,” he proffered. “Sonic tech is bein’ advanced all the time, maybe secretly, but under the eyes of the military. What Chet’s possibly doin’ is not somethin’ he wants the authorities to know about.”

Nathan smiled grimly as he took a slug of the hot coffee.

“Find out, Hardison. Then we’ll take Junior, Senior and Chet off the scene. Permanently.”

Hardison nodded.

“My pleasure, Nate.” He gazed at Eliot and Lizzie, and thought about how close they had come to losing their grouchy, protective hitter. “My pleasure.”


A little over a week later, Doctor Walt Toller made his way to the Bridgeport Brewery for an evening of good food and even better companionship.

To his surprise, Eliot welcomed him into the Leverage International offices, working easily with the two crutches, and, Toller was pleased to see, putting his compromised foot and heel flat to the ground. Parker had obviously been pushing the man to the limit, but it was working.

“Hey, look at you,” the little doctor smiled, handing Hardison a bottle of good Chablis and a decent light Zinfandel while studying Eliot.

“Not so bad, huh, Doc. Still a ways to go, but I’ll get there.” Eliot allowed himself a smile of triumph as he gimped after Toller who followed Hardison into the big living area where a table was set for dinner.

Parker shrieked with delight and launched herself at Toller, who was ready for her this time. He held her until she decided she could let go, and then she grinned at her favourite surgeon.

“Eliot’s much better,” she said conspiratorially. “I’ve been making him work,” she confided.

Toller raised his eyebrows and nodded.

“So I see,” he said admiringly. “He’s walking far better than I expected, so you’re doing a great job. Keep it up.”

“He complains all the time,” Parker scowled as Eliot settled himself carefully into a seat at the table. “He’s such a whiner.”

“They all are,” Sophie added as she came forward to greet the doctor.

“Hey!” Eliot grouched, “she’s nothin’ but a damn’ she-devil –“

Parker just grinned, evil personified.

“Okay,” Toller said. “Is there anywhere I can check you over and see how you’re healing up?”

“Right here, Doc,” Nate said, before Eliot could reply. “Will that do?”

“How about some damn privacy??” Eliot growled, irritated, although he knew he was on a losing streak.

“Yeah, sure,” Hardison interjected, Lizzie in his arms as he settled down at the table and snuck a warm bread roll. “Don’t trust you, m’bro. An’ we don’t want to have to torture the Doc to get the info out of him.”

Toller looked from Hardison to Parker to Eliot, and then he studied Nate.

“You … you wouldn’t, right?” he asked tentatively, just a teensy bit un-nerved, although he was pretty sure Hardison was kidding. He hoped.

So, with Eliot grouching and complaining and aiming his Death Glare at his concerned team, he was poked and prodded by Toller, who checked the healing incision in his back and made him take countless deep breaths as he made sure Eliot’s chest and lung were on the mend. Then, finally, he made Eliot stand up and do his walking exercises.

“See?” Eliot rasped as he came to a halt in front of Toller. “M’doin’ fine.”

“Yes … “ Toller nodded, his face thoughtful. “You still have a way to go and I can see the pain is still bad, but you’re dealing with it. Does the TENS machine help?”

Eliot eased himself once more back into his seat, unable to hold back a grunt of pain.

“Yeah, helps a bit on the bad days,” he admitted. "It’s the pins an’ needles an’ the nerve givin’ me hell all the damn’ time … nothing I do seems to help.”

Toller shook his head.

“Time. Only time will tell, my friend. But you muscle tone is okay, and Miss Parker has done a great job in getting you back on your feet. I’ll see how you are in a couple of weeks, and I’ll maybe get another MRI to check how it’s all progressing. But ...” Toller eyed the team now gathered loosely around Eliot. “… you know you may be left with a limp. The leg shouldn’t be any the less useful, but hey … a limp isn’t the end of the world.” Toller paused for a moment. “Even in your job,” he added, just a little bit amused.

Eliot brooded for a moment or two, and then sighed. He would deal with that when he needed to. Tonight … well, he was alive, and his team was safe, and good food was in the offing.

He quirked a wry smile.

“Let’s eat,” he said.

The meal, cooked by Sam who joined them in the meal, was superb. The big man had gone for seafood, with pan-seared rockfish and crab with garlic, and Eliot’s three-berries cobbler for dessert.

Conversation was easy as they ate, and Toller found himself bathing in the warmth of this odd family dynamic, the insults and humour flowing, underpinned with genuine and heartfelt affection.

Lizzie tucked into her fish as though she hadn’t been fed in a week, and when her plate was empty she yelled “BOFF!” and Sam dutifully gave her seconds.

They were settling down to coffee when Toller hauled out a piece of paper and handed it to Nate.

“You didn’t get this from me,“ he said quietly.

The jokes and teasing faded away as the group all looked at Nate, who studied the writing on the note.

“Eliot … you said you broke the elbow of one of the guys who attacked you.” Nate commented.

Eliot grimaced as he set his coffee cup on the table, remembering that night, although there were still gaps in his memory.

“Yeah … yeah, I felt it snap,” he said grimly. “I doubt he’d use the arm again.”

“Well,” Nate said softly, “he’s past worrying about it.” He looked at Toller and then at Eliot. “He’s dead.”

“Jeez … wasn’t expectin’ that,” Hardison murmured.

“How?” Eliot demanded, all business now.

“They fished him out of the Columbia River a few days ago,” Toller said. “I’d been checking records throughout Portland looking for reports of a broken elbow being presented at any of the hospitals or clinics – said it was for research into torque fractures,” he added, “so don’t worry. I’m a trauma surgeon, so that kind of enquiry wouldn’t be unusual. There’s nothing to come back on you guys - or me, for that matter.”

“How long?” Nate asked, face grim.

“He’d been in the water for a while … a couple of weeks, the pathologist said. He’s a friend of mine, so … he knew I was interested so he let me know. The guy had a hole in his head the size of a .357 round. Messy,” he grimaced, “’specially as he took it in the back of the head.”

“So … Junior’s taken that step we talked about,” Sam commented soberly. “I said he’d kill someone sooner rather than later.”

“You sure he’s an associate of Junior’s?” Sophie asked, wiping food off Lizzie’s hands.

“No,” Toller admitted. “But the man’s arm hadn’t been seen by a doctor. The break was badly set, and the arm was infected. He must have become a liability.” He cocked an eyebrow at Eliot. “I’ve seen this before in Kurdistan back in '02 when it was occupied by Iraq. The Taliban did the same thing with their wounded.”

“Does he have a name?” Hardison asked.

“Couldn’t find out without attracting attention. But I’m sure you’ll dig it up sooner rather than later,” Toller commented wryly. “One thing’s interesting, though. I went by and had a look at the remains. I’d say he was middle eastern. Big, heavily-muscled man, and even with him having been in a river for a while, I could see the long-term damage to his face and knuckles. Bare-knuckle fighter. Could be Turkish … or North African. There’s a tradition of that kind of thing there.”

“Junior’s a fan of back-street bare knuckle fights,” Hardison said. He frowned. “Hmmm … jus’ thinkin’ … Junior’s been in contact with someone called Osman who’s in Qatar.”

“That’s a Turkish name,” Sophie said thoughtfully.

Nate’s eyebrows raised.

“And the plot thickens,” he said. Well, he decided, now wasn’t the time to be discussing this, but he clapped Toller on the shoulder. The man could have put his career on line at best, and he had done it just to help them out, by digging into information Hardison hadn’t at this point considered following up. “Thanks, Doc.”

Toller waved a hand dismissively.

“Man, I’ll do anything for a good meal and a bit of excitement.” He grinned. “Glad I could help. Anyway … I’ll have to be going soon as I have two ops first thing tomorrow morning. But I’ll be heading back to Wallowa at the end of the week, so keep me in the loop, huh?”

“Will do,” Nate agreed. “So … people … let’s just relax and enjoy the rest of the evening, huh. This can wait until tomorrow.”

And so the rest of the night was all quiet laughter and banter, and all was well with the world as they had their hitter back on his feet, and Junior’s days of freedom were coming to an end.


Toller had headed back to the meagre little apartment he rented in Portland for when he was visiting to perform surgery a couple of times a month, and Sam had headed off to bed.

But Eliot sat at the table, turning the metal fragment Toller had dug out of his back over and over in his fingers. It shone reflected light as it turned, and Eliot carefully thumbed the dangerously sharp edges that had threatened to cripple him for nearly two decades.

It was while he pondered that Hardison sat down beside him and studied Eliot for a moment or two.

Eliot glanced at the hacker, brows drawn down, his mood darkening the longer he looked at the fragment.

What?” he said, with just a hint of impatience.

Hardison carried on looking at him for a little longer, and then smiled.

“Y’know, El … we almost lost you. You nearly died,” he said softly, concerned.

“Well,” Eliot replied, his voice a little growly. “I didn’t, so you can stop coddlin’ me, okay?”

Hardison nodded, his smile turning rueful.

“I guess. But you scared the crap out of us, man. I’m just glad you’re healin’, bro.” He rested a hand on Eliot’s shoulder, which surprised the Oklahoman so much that he forgot to shrug it off. Hardison suddenly flashed a white grin. “An’ don’t forget you owe Parker somethin’ chocoholic-y when you’re able.”

And with that the young hacker was gone, heading to his bed after a nice evening with his family.

Eliot looked again at the metal fragment, and then snorted in amusement. Ow. Maybe he shouldn’t have done that, as the pain shot down his leg like a lightning strike.

But then Nate was beside him, obviously having seen the flinch of pain on Eliot’s gaunt features. He slumped down in the seat that Hardison had vacated, and Eliot could see he was holding something.

It was a stick. A walking stick.

Nate held it out and proffered to Eliot.

“Doc told Parker you could drop down to one crutch, but I thought this might make you feel a little more normal.”

Eliot dropped the metal fragment on the table and took the stick, holding it by the shaft so that he could look at the handle.

“It belonged to my grandfather,” Nate continued, studying Eliot’s reaction, “my dad gave it to me, and now you can use it if you want to. Until, maybe, y’know, you don’t need it anymore,” he added cautiously.

Eliot studied the walking stick.

It was old, he knew that much … easily nineteenth century, and as black as night, made of the darkest ebony. The body of the stick was sturdy but dead plain, with no design or decoration, and the ferrule was solid brass. But the handle …

The handle made Eliot smile and his heart lurch.

It was the head of a great wolf, the head carved in the black, dense wood, leaping from the shaft like the predator it was, its ears back and mouth open in an eternal snarl. It was beautifully carved, and the teeth, emerging from the drawn back lips, were made of bone. And the eyes … the eyes were moonstones, reflecting the light in sinister glory, and fixed forever on a place indefinable, giving the wolf life and heart and soul. It was breath-taking, and Eliot was mesmerised.

He glanced at Nate, who could see the effect the carving had on Eliot, and then returned his gaze to the wolf.

Grasping the handle, he felt the wolf’s head meld to his grip, and he eased onto his feet, using the stick for the first time as his support. It was perfect.

Nate nodded, satisfied.

“Suits you,” he said.

Eliot stood straight and steady, and the heart of the wolf leapt in his chest.

For the first time since he was hurt, Eliot was at ease, and he felt, finally, as though he could be whole again.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


Two days later Eliot limped into the brewpub proper, back to his kitchen and his menus and the small but devoted team who made the food they all adored. Eliot’s motto, ‘Food is Life’, was understood by them all, and as Eliot made his way into the kitchen, Sam, Joe and young Mikey looked up from their various chores and nodded, and Eliot heard the murmured greeting of ‘Chef’. No noisy welcomes, no hugs, no histrionics. Just ‘Chef,’ a title he treasured more than any other.

“How’re the lunches goin’?” he asked, watching Mikey as he worked on the side salads and being kept an eye on by Sam, who had been in charge while Eliot was laid up.

“Good,” Joe answered, busy plating up and setting the food out for the server to take out to the customers. Lunch at the brewpub had become very popular, with wholesome, high-quality food cooked and presented to perfection.

Joe, his long, thick silver-grey hair tucked under a hairnet, worked diligently and quickly, knowing his routine to perfection. The ex-marine had served in Iraq, Afghanistan and even – covertly – in Pakistan, but his heart would always be in a kitchen. He glanced at Eliot.

“You okay?” he asked quietly as he worked.

Eliot nodded, shifting his weight so that it was spread as evenly as possible to help with the strain on his bad leg.

“I’ll live. Workin’ on gettin’ better. It’ll take time, but hey … they say patience is a virtue, huh?”

Joe smiled at that one, his neatly trimmed goatee lending him a devilish air. But the smile faded and he nodded at Mikey, who was busy slicing aromatic Cherokee purple tomatoes.

“Boy needs talkin’ to, El. He’s been shittin’ himself with anger ever since you got hurt. Talkin’ about speakin’ to his old friends to see if he could find out anythin’ about that night.” Joe studied the mass of tattoos on the boy’s arms and neck, knowing they also spread over his bony back and chest. “Don’t want him anywhere near those assholes, but you know he thinks the world of ya an’ it hit him hard. He’s just a kid, El … speak to him, man. He needs ya.”

Eliot sighed.

Mikey Gonzalez, nineteen going on forty, high-school drop-out and late of the Mi Vida Loca gang out of Gresham, had come to the brewpub via Hardison as owner, and the boy’s parole officer. He was teetering on the edge of serious crime, given the gang’s affiliation with the Mexican cartels, and somehow Mikey had ended up being watched over by a couple of hard-bitten ex-soldiers and Eliot, who had taken Mikey under his wing.

Eliot’s brand of tough love … honesty, hard work and no bullshit had somehow worked when nothing else had, and Mikey, for the first time in his life, had someone to look up to other than his kind, gentle mother.

Mikey had visited Eliot only once in hospital, when he was still unconscious and looking mostly dead, and the sight of his mentor so badly hurt had shaken Mikey so profoundly he hadn’t returned.

Eliot took Joe’s suggestion on board and waited in the dining area, checking the menus for the next month and sipping on a tea as he perused the tablet in front of him and waited for Mikey’s lunchtime shift to be over.

He was smiling at Sam’s choices – not what he would have chosen, but inspired, none the less, when a plate appeared in front of him with one of Joe’s excellent Gerber sandwiches on it, placed there by a hand covered in tattoos.

“Hey Eliot … Joe says you have to eat this. You need feedin’ up, he says, with you bein’ sick ‘n’ all.”

Eliot ran a hand through his hair and looked up at Mikey. As usual, Mikey didn’t look back. He still had issues with eye contact. Eliot was working on it, though.

The hitter waved at the seat opposite, urging Mikey to sit down. The young man gingerly eased into the chair and waited.

Eliot took a bite of the sandwich – rich garlic butter and provolone cheese over Old Salt tasso ham, a Portland speciality. Joe knew this was one Eliot’s favourites and would tempt his appetite and Eliot chewed slowly, savouring the mouthful. His appetite was still a little lacking, as always after he had been injured, but the sandwich was delicious.

Swallowing the heavenly bite, he wiped his mouth with a napkin and studied Mikey. The kid was staring at the table cloth for some reason.

“Thanks for comin’ by the hospital.” Eliot allowed a quick twitch from the side of his mouth, a toned-down smile if ever there was one. Why waste a perfectly good smile on someone who wasn’t even looking at you? “Sorry I wasn’t awake. Why didn’t you come by when I was lookin’ less like a corpse?”

Mikey glanced up at Eliot and then looked away again, this time at the menu on the table.

“Didn’t want to disturb you, man. You was healin’ up an’ … an’ the others …” Mikey let his voice fade into silence.

Eliot studied the over-long nose and the misaligned jaw, the bony features and the thin-lipped mouth which, when it creased into a white-toothed smile, charmed away the raw-boned visage and set Mikey’s gamin face alight.

Shifting in his seat, Eliot wished he could go and rest on his bed because his leg was murderously sore, but he had Mikey to sort out. He managed another bite of his sandwich and let Mikey stew for a minute or two.

When he finished eating, he lifted his walking stick and studied the wolf’s head, letting the light catch the limpid moonstone eyes.

“It happens, Mikey,” he said, cutting through the silence.

Mikey suddenly cut dark eyes to Eliot’s blue gaze, frowning with confusion.

“I don’t –“

Shit happens,” Eliot reiterated. “I got hurt. I didn’t die. And, I’m gonna make the best of it. I got no choice. I might not need this,” he gestured at the walking stick, “for very long, or …” he took a deep breath and continued, “I might need it for the rest of my life. But I’m still me. This stick don’t change that.”

“El –“ Mikey began.

“An’ if you go anywhere near those assholes you used to call friends over in Gresham, walking stick or not, I’m gonna bust your ass so hard you won’t be walkin’ straight for a month - and your momma will thank me for it, y’hear me?? An’ I don’t need any stick to do it.”

Mikey’s eyes widened.

“But –“

“No buts, Mikey. I mean it.” Eliot grasped the wolf’s head and pointed the stick at Mikey, the solid brass ferrule coming to rest on the young man’s skinny chest, right over his heart. “You got somethin’ in you, kid, that could be … could be … great.” He gave Mikey’s chest a poke with the stick, just to make his point. “You are a natural-born cook. A chef. And one day, if you play your cards right and work your bony ass off, you will be outstanding. And if you think I’m gonna let you screw that up just ‘cause I got the crap kicked out of me by a bunch of morons, then you’re not as bright as I think you are.”

“I – “ Mikey was beginning to feel out of his depth, especially as he grasped what Eliot was saying. He had a future … and all he had to do was seize it with all he had.

“When I’ve done all I can for you,” Eliot continued, “I’m gonna send you to a friend of mine. He taught me, an’ he can teach you. His name’s Toby Heath, an’ he’s a good man, Mikey. And if you diss him or give him any cause to call me other than to thank me for sending him such a good student, I will bring my not inconsiderable wrath down on your thick skull, y’hear me? So, you stay put, stay out of trouble and don’t go anywhere near Gresham. Okay? You got it?”

Eliot removed the stick from its place on Mikey’s chest and winced. He so wished the damn painkillers didn’t make him so sick.

Mikey stared at Eliot.

“You ain’t shittin’ me?” He asked breathlessly.

“Have I ever?” Eliot replied, voice now raspy with pain.

Mikey didn’t know what to say, so he just smiled that shy smile that made him look his nineteen years … the smile his mother adored because that was her Mikey, the one she knew before Mi Vida Loca had got its claws into the twelve-year-old years ago.

“Go home,” Eliot grouched kindly. “An’ say hi to your mom for me, will ya?”

Mikey, doing his best to be nonchalant and failing because of the light of hope in his eyes, nodded.

“You need anythin’, Eliot … “

“Yeah, yeah, I gotcha,” Eliot waved dismissively. “See you tomorrow, man, an’ - wait …”

Eliot was thoughtful.

“Yeah, Chef?” Mikey replied, even as he rose from the chair. Eliot waved at him to sit back down.

“Gresham. Near the Midway Business District?”

Mikey nodded.

“Yeah … Mi Vida Loca … we’re – they’re – “ he corrected himself, “all through there. Why?” His face suddenly became eager as he thought he could help Eliot. “ You wanna go there? Is it somethin’ to do with those hijos del diablo who hurt you? I can take you, show you ‘round –“

Yes, it’s to do with them, and no you are not goin’ there, Mikey, with or without me, all right? If you got ten minutes I want you to go upstairs an’ speak to Hardison. Tell him I want you to look at some CCTV footage from Midway. I want you to tell him everything you know about the area … any unseen nooks and crannies, any place big enough where stuff can be stored and not found easily. Can you do that for me?”

Mikey looked Eliot square in the eye and grinned.

“Hey, mi hermano, I can give you as much time as you need, okay!”

And as Mikey set off with a spring in his step to speak to Hardison, Eliot watched the young man, seeing the new sense of pride in himself. He was a good kid.

Eliot let out an explosive breath and tried to ease his position in the seat. He hurt. Sam was suddenly beside him, because, of course, the big man was looking out for Eliot, as he had promised.

Eliot eyed him wearily.

“Remind me to tell Hardison to buy some new chairs,” he griped. “These are friggin’ agony!”

Sam chuckled and sat down. Customers were on the wane after the lunchtime rush, and Joe was holding the kitchen fort.

“Sore, huh,” he commented, somewhat unnecessarily. Then he pointed at the remains of the sandwich. “Eat. If you don’t, Joe will resign and then we’re screwed.”

Knowing Joe would do no such thing, Eliot slowly worked his way through the remains of the Gerber sandwich, and both he and Sam sat silently as he did so. Sam was a patient man.

Eliot paused for a moment, eyes on his walking stick, twirling it idly in his fingers.

Sam pursed his lips.

“Do you know who Gene Kelly was?” he said out of nowhere.

Eliot frowned, puzzled.

“Uh … yeah? Dancer … singin’ in the rain, that sort of thing? I liked him in The Three Musketeers.” Eliot’s face softened as he remembered Kelly’s energetic and magnificently athletic performance as D’Artagnan.

“Uh-huh,” Sam agreed. “That’s him.”

“Why are we … you … talkin’ about Gene Kelly all of a sudden?” Eliot rasped. Sometimes Sam could be a little obtuse.

Sam gestured at the stick.

“I know what you do in your other job … kinda … and I’ve always thought of you as a Gene Kelly kind of guy. All body slams and no-nonsense, taking the hits and bouncing back. But when you were out cold in that hospital, none of us knowing if you were going to make it, I was sitting with Parker late one night, and she was talking … man, can she talk … and all she spoke about was how beautiful you are when you fight. Graceful, but hard and fast, using whatever you can to get the job done.”

Eliot uneasily straightened in his chair, frowning.

Beautiful? How the hell could he, Eliot Spencer, be called beautiful, especially when he was pummelling the crap out of bad guys. Parker was crazy, though, so she could be forgiven such nonsense.

Sam smiled, and seizing the day, kept talking.

“So … I heard what you said to Mikey about not knowing if you’ll need that stick for the rest of your life. Worse case scenario? You stay a ‘cripple’, as you see it. So … if you want to carry on with what – who – you feel you are, then you have to be more Fred Astaire.”

Eliot blinked and then scowled, now mystified completely.

“Sam, I have no idea what the hell’s goin’ on in that cracked head of yours but –“

“Fred Astaire was a different kind of dancer, Eliot. Slender, elegant, precise. Still athletic, but nothing like Kelly. But like you, he would use anything to hand in his dances, turning them into living things or using them to work with his own style. You need to be more Astaire.” He pointed at the stick. “I’ve seen you twirl everything from a baseball bat to a carving knife in your fingers, so I know you have the skill, and Parker said she knew you once took down a man with nothing but your bare hands and a roll of duct tape. You just need to grow that even more into your fighting style. Work with the stick instead of relying on it. Be Gene Kelly with a generous helping of Fred Astaire.”

Eliot stared at Sam as though he was an alien. Then he stared back at his stick.

“Huh,” he said.

Sam smiled.


Eliot and his stick made their way back upstairs to Leverage International HQ, to find Hardison and Mikey working away at Midway CCTV footage, stopping and starting frame by frame. Mikey was alight with interest, and Hardison managed to get hold of a 1920s Portland area plan as well as a modern 21st century layout.

Mikey was showing special interest in the footage showing Junior and his men in the parking lot … the footage that had frustrated the wits out of Hardison as their destination was just out of reach of the camera system’s scope. Originally Hardison had found nothing on the present-day plans, but Mikey had shed some light on the area.

“See … just where they’re headed as they go around the corner … there’s an ol’ doorway blocked off in the side of some derelict warehouses. It looks as though you can’t get in there, but it ain’t difficult if you know how. I used to go in there when I was a niñito … to get away from the gangs … they don’ know about it, see. Leads to some real old storage rooms. Anythin’ in there would be pretty safe if you put a lock on the door.”

Hardison nodded, and checked the old plan.

“Yeah … yeah, look at this. Warehouses, built in the 1900s, an’ here … in the Oregon Daily Journal … mention of shares bein’ sold in 1922 for the Arcady Lighting Company. Didn’t last long though – turned out it was a cover for illegal hooch smugglin’ en route from Canada.” Hardison narrowed his eyes. “Shame we can’t get in there to have a look, but … it’s safer this way.”

Eliot left the two of them to their plans, and quietly made his way to his room and shut the door silently behind him. He didn’t bother locking it, as he knew none of his team would find it difficult to get through the lock if they wanted to. But, right now, they would give him his space.

Easing his sore body onto the bed he lay on top of the covers to think, his walking stick beside him, the wolf’s head under his right hand. It was almost as though the tenacity of the wolf would find its way into his weary heart.

He stayed there for the afternoon, unable to sleep, and his mind pondering what Sam had said. He knew he would have to do something, because at some point very soon, he was certain, he would face Danny McAllister and his brass-knuckle-wielding goons - and this time … this time … he had to make sure the outcome was very different.

Eliot sighed.

He was tired to the bone, and sore, and oh so done with this pain and worry about looking out for his team. His family. But maybe … maybe Sam had come up with a solution. But he needed help, he realised.

Reaching over to his bedside table, he lifted his cell phone and keyed in a number, waiting for an answer.

Hello?

“Hey Sam … it’s Eliot. Listen … I’ve been thinkin’ … and I got a proposition for ya …”


It was after midnight, and Hardison was still working on the information Mikey had given him. The kid was good, showing him an almost inexhaustible number of hidey-holes and hidden and forgotten spaces in the Midway area, knowledge only a person of Mikey’s experience would be able to gain.

He rubbed his eyes and took another slug of orange soda, hoping the sugar rush would help. But it didn’t. He really, really needed to get some sleep. But he had one more thing to do. He had left Junior alone for a few days, and Hardison thought now would be the right time to give the little asshole another dose of the fraidy-cats.

Humming to himself, he began bringing up the schematics for Portland’s street lighting system.

 

To be continued …

 

Chapter Text


Sam arrived at Leverage International HQ the next morning, and both he and Eliot secreted themselves in the gym, the door closed firmly behind them.

It drove Parker nuts.

“What’re they doing?” she asked Sophie, irritated. “They’re talking about something. What are they talking about? Why is Eliot not talking to us?

“He’ll tell us when he’s ready,” Sophie replied, her voice a little tense as she put Lizzie’s breakfast - one of Sam’s Eliot-recipe-light-as-a-feather English muffins topped with cream cheese and local berries - in front of the always-hungry child. Thinking about it, Sophie grabbed another one for herself and lathered on the topping and tucked in while she drank her morning tea. While Eliot was away, then Sophie would play, and she didn’t care if he found out because Lizzie’s food was better than anything Sophie could make.

“But he won’t tell us,” Parker whined.

“And you think buggin’ him about it is gonna make him tell us?” Hardison muttered, his jaw tight as he reached past Sophie for a muffin. Man, they were good. “An’ don’t even think about crawlin’ about in the air vents. Leave him alone, will ya?”

“But –“

“Parker, Eliot has his reasons,” Nate said as he cut up Lizzie’s muffin for ease of munching and to try and cut down on the mess. Lizzie was pretty good at shovelling food into her mouth, but sometimes in her eagerness she missed. “I think he’s trying to figure out stuff … about how he can work with the changes he’s dealing with.”

What changes?” Parker frowned. “He’ll get better and then he’ll be Eliot again, just a little bit achier. And the TENS machine will help that,” she added, now confused.

The rest of the team looked at one another. Lizzie eyeballed everyone as she stuffed a muffin-bit into her mouth, curious as to what the hoo-hah was about.

“Bffff,” she said, her comment muffin-inhibited.

“Yeah, you said it, baby-girl,” Hardison agreed with his god-daughter. His baby-speak was improving. “Parker … you know, right, that Eliot might never walk properly again without that stick, don’t you? Doc said –“

Parker snorked in derision.

“He said Eliot might have a limp. So what? Eliot will figure it out. Then he can begin working again, as soon as he’s all healed up. So why does he need Sam?”

Nate spread cream cheese on his muffin and eyed Parker.

“Because, Parker, Sam’s ex-military. He was in the military police and was also a champion boxer for the Navy. He’s big and can handle himself, and I think … I think … Eliot needs that kind of support right now. He’s helping Eliot get a handle on things.”

Parker was somewhat bewildered now.

“But … but I don’t think he’ll need the stick –“

“He might not, Parker. But this is just in case it turns out that he does.” Nate tried to be patient.

Parker cogitated for a minute or two while her friends thoughtfully munched their muffins, letting her work it out in her head and her heart.

“Okay … okay, I get it,” she said slowly, scratching her head, “but he can still be Eliot, even with the stick. Lots of people have sticks, or … or wheelchairs … or other things like prosthetics, and they’re no different from anyone else. He’s ours and he’ll just be Eliot, like he always is. Although probably a bit more growly,” she added thoughtfully. “But,” she continued, not willing to let it go, “why is he in the gym?” Her eyes suddenly widened in realisation. “Is he working out? Is he?? Because he’s nowhere near all healed up and he could hurt himself, his back, or … or he could damage his chest again and … and … and then we’d have to start worrying about him all over again –“

“Parker,” Sophie interrupted before Parker worked herself into a state of panicky confusion, “He’s Eliot. He is who he is, and we have to take him that way. We can only play the family card so often, and to be honest, this is all about family … about how he sees his place in this family. We’ll do our best, I promise, to limit the damage.” She sighed, frustrated. “But he’ll only listen to us up to a point. Sometimes we just have to take a step back, y’know?”

“So … you’re just going to let him do this??” Parker demanded. “Seriously? I mean … seriously??? You’re really going to let him do this … this dumb thing just because he’s Eliot??” She stared wildly into three sets of extremely concerned eyes. “He needs more time!! He’s only just back on his feet, for god’s sake, and he hurts … dammit, he hurts all the time, and I can’t stop it no matter how hard I try and … and …” she sputtered to a stop. The guilt was eating her up.

Nate ran a hand over his face in exasperation.

“Parker … you know Eliot’s a force of nature. You don’t get in the way of a hurricane. Not even you.”

Now Parker got really angry.

Fine!! So it’s okay to tell me not to stab people with forks or … or … poke people, or allow me to eat lots of chocolate or any of that stuff because you think it’s bad, but it’s okay for Eliot to do something that could make him sick again … or even die –“

Nate had had enough.

“Parker –“

What??” Parker had an undeniable edge of hysteria in her voice born of desperation and confusion.

Nate waved at the gym door.

“Just … just go, dammit.” He grimaced. “If anyone can do this and live, it’s you.”

“Nate –“ Sophie’s voice had the fragile edge to it, the one she got when one of her own was going off plan.

“Let her go, Sophie … you know we’re all worried as hell and we can kid ourselves all we like, but somebody has to find out what he’s up to.” He smiled wanly. “And if anyone can do it, Parker can.”

Parker stalked to the gym door where she could hear murmuring conversation and then movement … and then the tell-tale sound of Eliot punching something, followed by a hiss of pain.

She stopped at the door, thinking.

“Hmmm … need something else …” she pondered, and then turning on her heels, she strode back to the breakfast bar, face set and still angry. She held up a finger to stop the imminent questions from the team, and then set her gaze on Lizzie in her high chair, still muffin-mangling and curious as to what was going on.

Parker looked at Lizzie, who stared back. Parker held out her hands.

“Wanna go shout at Eliot??” she asked the child.

Lizzie let out a sudden bark of delight.

“BOFF!!” she yelled, spraying muffin bits in all directions, and waved her arms to be lifted.

Tucking a happy Lizzie onto her hip, Parker shot a final glare at her team and then both she and Lizzie set off to bring Eliot to his senses.

“Have you noticed,” Nate said wonderingly to Sophie as he took a hefty drink of coffee, “that our darling, precious daughter is increasingly becoming the only person in this misbegotten universe with any kind of say in Eliot’s life?”

“Mmmm … “ Sophie murmured. “So true. Oh well,” she sighed, “here’s hoping the pair of them can knock some sense into him.”

Hardison sat down on one of the stools and stared at Parker as she headed towards the gym door, Lizzie on her hip, and in his heart he hoped Eliot didn’t get too whupped if he kicked up a stink.

“You know why he’s doin’ this, don’t you?” Hardison said softly.

Nate raised a questioning eyebrow.

“He’s gonna face off Junior an’ his goons,” Hardison continued, his tone serious now.

“You’re kidding, right?” Nate asked, stunned. “Right??

“In god’s name, why??” Sophie asked, her fine-boned features wreathed with concern.

“Because this whole thing, at the beginnin’, just looked like some thugs takin’ Eliot out one night ‘cause he pissed one of ‘em off. And now it ain’t,” Hardison continued cryptically.

“There’s a lot more to it, I know, but –“ Sophie wondered what the hell Hardison was talking about.

“A. Lot. MORE.” Hardison emphasised. “I was hopin’ we could all get together sometime today an’ run through what I got so far,” he added. “If Eliot’s still alive, that is.”

There was a sudden flurry of raised voices as Parker opened the gym door and then a yelp was heard as something – or someone, probably five-ten, one hundred and eighty pounds of solid muscle and bone and distinctly Eliot-shaped – hit the floor hard.

“Although,” the hacker said, wincing in sympathy, “I doubt it.”


“I already told you, Eliot … you’re not ready,” Sam reiterated as Eliot loosened the tieback on the bottom of the punch-bag so it would swing free. “You’re barely out of hospital and you want to begin working out?”

“So why did you come?” Eliot said, his voice low but determined. “And I’ve been out of hospital for comin’ up two weeks. I’ve taken down a gang of Russian gun smugglers within that time before,” he added, intent on his task.

Sam shook his head, exasperated.

“Okay … number one,” he said, holding up the requisite single finger, “I came to try and talk you out of this nonsense, and two,” he added another finger, “to make sure you didn’t hurt yourself doing this, because I knew number one wouldn’t work.”

Eliot couldn’t stop the smile from appearing on his face.

“I’ll be fine, Sam. I won’t do any more than I’m able –“

“You’re not able to do a damn thing yet, Eliot! At least give yourself another couple of weeks and get some more physio under your belt, and then –“

“Not gonna happen, Sam,” Eliot said softly as he straightened, his stick now in hand. He had changed into sweats and was barefoot, so that he could feel the different pressure and weakness in his bad leg without anything inhibiting his balance. “Look,” he said quietly, “all I want to do is find out the parameters of working with this,” he indicated his stick, “just to see how I’m going to have to alter my balance … see how I can adapt and change my style … be more Fred than Gene, just like you suggested. Just for a little while, okay?”

He wasn’t going to be convinced otherwise, Sam now knew. Damn. Alright … he would work with the idea, and try and make sure Eliot didn’t do anything too dumb and push himself too hard, which he also was sure Eliot would do if he didn’t keep an eye on him.

Dammit, man …” he grumped, and grasped the punch-bag. “Okay … “ Sam thought about it for a moment or two. “Let’s try a gentle swing … slow and easy, so you can try and feel how you move differently. Let your body tell you how to move, not the other way around. You can’t force it, El … your body will have to unlearn a lifetime’s intuition and practice.”

Eliot nodded. He used his stick in his left hand, supporting his bad right leg, which left his right hand free to see what would happen if he tried a punch or two. The balance already felt strange … alien.

He had always used his body as a weapon. It was almost an holistic approach, understanding the environment and adapting as he went along. He knew that sometimes he would overcompensate to take down an opponent, relying on his excellent balance and skills to keep him on his feet, but even then he would sometimes have to take a hopping step or two to stay upright as he put his whole weight behind a punch.

That was gone now. He had to be defensive in his stance, but able to be as balanced and as deadly as he ever was. He needed to know how he could use his stick, not just lean on the damn thing.

Raising his stick and using it as a counterbalance while tucked flat against his forearm, he eased into a relaxed fighter’s stance, bare right hand in a tight fist, thumb tucked in over the knuckles so that the concussion of the blow didn’t break bones, and he watched the gentle swing of the punch-bag.

He set his feet apart so that he could use his good leg as a kind of support while he had other uses for the stick. His bad leg hurt like hell, but Parker’s demanding physiotherapy regime was paying off – he had more strength in the leg that he thought.

Sam had set the punch-bag moving into a minimal figure-of-eight, giving Eliot something more than a straight swing to work with, and the hitter slowed his breathing, letting his heartbeat steady and his new balance parameter work for him.

In a sudden explosion of movement, Eliot hit the bag on the forward swing, putting his shoulder behind the power with his elbow bent to absorb the impact, and the sheer force of the blow altered the bag’s motion, sending it slamming back towards Sam. Eliot twirled the walking stick in the fingers of his left hand and brought it forward in a movement so fast the ebony was a blur of darkness in the air. It hit the punch-bag with enough force to stop its swing altogether, and the vibration of the blow thrummed up the chain to the heavy hook in the ceiling from which it swung.

Eliot knew immediately he had over-compensated and that his balance was shot. He stumbled sideways and only just managed to right himself, using the stick as his support. The pain was so intense he let out a hiss of agony.

Sam stood staring at the punch-bag, still jigging slightly on its chain as the vibration eased.

Jesus!” he whispered in awe.

“Again!” Eliot grated as the pain shot through his thigh and knee and his foot began to cramp. “A bit more swing on the bag this time. I need to move … see how far I can push it.”

“Eliot –“ Sam said, still stunned by the grace and deadly speed of this man that until a few weeks ago he had really known only as a cook and a good fishing buddy.

“I’m good,” Eliot said grimly. “Again, Sam. And this time put some force behind it. Don’t worry – I can deal with it.”

He loosened his stance once again and this time he didn’t watch the punch-bag as much as sense its place and rhythm in the immediate environment. He dearly wanted to close his eyes and rely entirely on his other senses but he knew he was nowhere near ready for that yet.

He focused himself, once more slowing his heartbeat. He heard the creak of the chain as it took the weight of the swinging bag … his nostrils flared as he took in the smell of the sweat-stained canvas … he felt the movement in the air as it passed by his left shoulder, faster now, with more menace.

This time the blow was low, kidney-height, and the bag shuddered with the impact. Eliot heard the chain hook in the ceiling protest as he pivoted, ready to sway slightly to his right and use the stick to –

“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing!?”

Too focused on the job at hand, Eliot hadn’t heard the gym door open, and Parker’s furious voice brought him up short. Caught unawares – which for Eliot was a first – he paused for a fateful second.

The full one hundred pounds of heavyweight bag hit Eliot solidly in the chest.

He hit the ground hard, the breath driven out of him so that his yell of pain was really nothing more than a wheezy yelp. The explosion of pain in his chest and leg nearly knocked him unconscious.

“OH GOD! ELIOT!”

Parker’s panicked voice seemed a million miles away as Eliot lay there on the wooden floor, trying to drag some much-needed air into his lungs, and his right leg was just one mass of agony.

“M’ … m’okay,” he gasped, eyes tight shut as he fought the betrayal of his damaged body. He clenched his teeth as he felt Sam’s powerful arms gently lift him upright and back into the ex-CPO’s chest.

“No, no, lie him flat!”

Eliot could feel Parker’s presence beside him and there was another person sitting on the floor on his other side, and he felt little hands clutch possessively at his arm.

Lizzie.

He coughed as air filled his damaged lung, and as Sam eased him down a cushion was settled beneath his head and another under the knee of his bad leg so that lying flat on the unforgiving floor didn’t cripple him with pain.

“Easy now … just breathe, you idiot!” Parker was obviously incensed. “What the hell, Sam??? He’s hurt!!”

“I tried, Parker! I told him he wasn’t ready, but he didn’t listen – I thought if I went along with it I could at least make sure he didn’t hurt himself!”

“If … if you hadn’t interrupted …” Eliot gasped, catching his breath, “I would have been fine!”

The tiny hands on his arm moved to his face, and Eliot pried open his eyes to see Lizzie gazing at him from about six inches away. He almost had to cross his eyes to keep her in focus. Her big brown eyes – so like her mother’s – were wide with worry and her lips were pursed as though she was about to burst into tears. She patted his face gently.

Eliot gave her his tiny Lizzie-smile, and lifting a shaky hand he ruffled her dark locks.

“M’okay, ‘Lizbeth Grace, don’t worry, darlin’,” he said softly.

Lizzie’s frown turned deeply serious.

“Boff!” she scolded, and then to Eliot’s profound surprise, she gave him a clumsy, sloppy kiss on his nose.

“See! Even Lizzie thinks you’re an idiot!” Parker snapped.

Eliot switched his gaze to Parker, who sat on the floor on the other side of him next to Sam, her hand on his chest, checking his breathing.

“An’ that from the woman who once hit me on the head with a crowbar,” he muttered.

Parker’s look became one of embarrassed fury.

That was an accident! You should just have let me taser the guy anyway!”

“You threw it at me, Parker!”

“Well how was I to know you wouldn’t catch it!”

“You were behind me!” Eliot hissed.

Parker snorted.

“I thought you could tell these things, Eliot! Some ninja you are!”

“Dam – darn it, Parker,” Eliot corrected himself hastily, aware of Lizzie’s ears just inches away, “for the hundredth time I’m not a ninja!!

“She really hit you with a crowbar??” Sam asked, eyes wide with wonder.

“He’s just a wuss,” Parker grouched. “And yes, I hit him with a crowbar. By mistake. He probably deserved it anyway,” she added by way of explanation.

Eliot just simmered and lay back, letting the pain in his chest and leg ebb away as Lizzie fell onto his chest and hugged him.

“Um … if you guys have finished loungin’ about on the floor, we gotta sit down and talk McAllisters,” Hardison said from the doorway. “Oh, an’ El?”

Eliot scowled at him as best as he could while lying prone and useless on the floor with Lizzie draped over his chest.

What??” he growled.

“If I were you I’d get some pretty pictures taped to the ceilin’, ‘cause I get the feelin’ you’re gonna be spendin’ a whole lot more time loungin’ about on the floor hurtin’ like hell if you carry on with all this butt-whuppin’ practice, y’know.” He shrugged. “Just sayin’ …”

Eliot’s lip curled into a feeble snarl.

“Gosh-darn it, Hardison! So help me I’m gonna whup you –“

Hardison grinned unrepentantly.

“You got five minutes, people! An’ then … showtime!”

Eliot glared at Hardison, and then switched his death-glare to Parker and Sam, both of whom had their arms crossed and were scowling at him.

He groaned in frustration even as he felt Lizzie’s arms hug him tight. Oh well, he thought sullenly. At least Lizzie still loved him.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text


“This ain’t gonna be pretty, people,” Hardison said as he brought up a picture of Chet Morris on the giant plasma screen.

Everyone – including Sam, who now felt as entitled to be there as anyone else – had ensconced themselves on the couch and easy chairs out of deference to Eliot, who found sitting on the high seats painful. He was sprawled on the couch, still in sweats and with bare feet, a heat pad at the small of his back and one on his chest. Parker had also nagged him to take one paracetamol to help dull the pain a little. Eliot, grouching even as he took the pill and glass of water, did so, much to his team’s amazement. He was hurting.

“So,” the hitter said, as he set the glass down on the little table beside him and waggled his finger at Morris’ face, “who he?”

Hardison had forgotten Eliot wasn’t up to speed, so he condensed it a little.

“Chet Morris, Texan, clever son-of-a-gun, expert on ultrasonic acoustics and, as it turns out, occasional purveyor of under-age girls for his private use,” he said, curling his lip in distaste. “He’s also the link to the whole business. This transaction Junior has goin’ on … Chet’s the key. Junior has the down an’ dirty on the guy.”

“Nice,” Nate growled. He hated human trafficking.

“So,” Eliot pondered, “what’s he sellin’, why’s he sellin’ it and who’s interested?”

Hardison brought up another photograph and toggled it next to Morris’ image.

“Meet Osman Osman. Other than his folks havin’ no imagination whatsoever in the child namin’ department, he is a very shady fellow indeed.”

The image was of a dark haired man in his early forties with an interesting moustache and a white-toothed smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“Turkish born, lives in Qatar now. On the surface, he’s a respectable businessman dealing in lapis lazuli from Afghanistan an’ other popular merchandise such as carpets, textiles an’ such.” He paused for a moment or two.

“But …” Sophie urged.

But … he has underground contacts with ISIL.”

“Let me guess,” Eliot ground out, “I’d say smugglin’ arms and explosives through the Akcakale border post. Am I right?”

Hardison nodded.

“Got it in one, El. And right under the noses of the Turkish border guards.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the situation right there. Turkey’s refusin’ to directly attack ISIL even though the UN an’ the USA want the Turkish government to grow a pair an’ engage the basta … miscreants,” Eliot stuttered as Lizzie crawled from Sophie’s arms over Sam and onto Eliot’s lap, where she sat down and studied the face on the screen. She pointed at Osman and then looked around at Eliot.

“Boff!!” she said.

“Yeah, sweetheart … not a nice guy,” Eliot agreed.

“He also flew into PDX yesterday,” Hardison added sombrely.

“So … what’s the connection?” Sam said.

“Bareknuckle fighting,” Hardison replied. “The dead guy Doc told us about? His name was Hamza Burakgazi, from Gaziantep, near the Syrian border. Osman’s a big fan of bareknuckle, and whenever he’s here in the States he finds the local illegal fights. He has business contacts in Portland, so it stands to reason he met Junior at one of ‘em.”

“Probably wanted to see a home-grown fighter like Burakgazi. And … Burakgazi was one of Junior’s fighters … and one of his goons. Hey presto. Bad guy meets snivelling psycho, both of whom love the fight.” Nate nodded to himself. That would work, he decided.

“Junior probably got rid of Burakgazi because whatever deal he has going on was threatened when Eliot broke his elbow. It would need emergency medical attention and –“ Sophie pursed her lips, trying to timeline everything in her head.

“Nope. I reckon it was Osman took him out. Probably to cover his butt and to make sure any finger-pointin’ was directed at Junior if Burakgazi was implicated in any of the other attacks Hardison mentioned to me.” Eliot said, “He doesn’t want any threat to whatever he has goin’ on with Junior.”

“So … Junior’s acting as an intermediary between Osman and Morris??” Sam asked, trying to keep tabs on the whole plan so far.

“Morris has a little secret project all of his own,” Hardison said, “which Junior found out about. Then, nasty little person that he is, he dug up the dirt on Morris an’ his taste for young girls. Bastard,” he added under his breath so Lizzie couldn’t hear.

“So … let me get this straight … ” Nate stood up and began to pace. “Junior knows Osman and has an idea of what he does … he knows whatever Morris has is something he can sell to Osman … so he makes it possible? A simple deal and nothing more?”

“So what is it he’s selling?” Parker asked, now intrigued.

Hardison rubbed his hands together. This was the bit he loved best. The techy bit.

“Ever heard of the brown note?” he asked, knowing full well none of his audience would have done so. He gave them a few seconds to answer, and then launched into the explanation. He adored explaining things. “The brown note is a hypothetical – hypothetical – infrasonic frequency that hits a certain pitch an’ causes people to lose control of their bowels … it makes ‘em poop themselves,” he added by way of simplifying the explanation. The glee in his voice was unmistakeable.

“Ick!” said Parker, screwing her face up in disgust.

“To be fair,” Hardison continued, “imagine if we could do that – we could stop war in a day ‘cause everyone would be too busy in the bathroom to do anythin’ about fightin’. And, it would put up the demand for toilet paper in an instant an’ business would boom. A win-win situation, if you ask me. But it’s just a bit of theoretical fun. Chet’s little project is very, very different.”

Nathan frowned.

“So, what is Chet making in his basement that Osman would want?”

Eliot rubbed Lizzie’s back as she dealt with a bout of hiccups.

“Weaponized acoustics,” he said, understanding now.

Hardison nodded.

“On the button,” he said. “I looked at the plans of his business an’ there are several rooms in his HQ wired up with huge amounts of power input an’ he’s bought a number of transponders and emitters that work with infrasound.”

“Infrasound?” Sophie asked, curious.

“In this case, it would be targeted low-frequency soundwaves. Because of the length of the sound-waves, it lends itself to bein’ manipulated and targeted more easily than ultrasound.”

Eliot was sitting up straight, his attention fully on Hardison.

“What level of hertz?” he asked, his voice low and dangerous.

Hardison hesitated for a moment before answering.

“Seven,” he replied quietly.

Eliot’s face was suddenly as though it was carved from rock and ice. The hand not rubbing Lizzie’s back clenched into a fist.

“What … what does that mean, Hardison?” Parker queried, a chill running down her spine at the tone in Eliot’s voice.

“Infrasonic weapons … again, theoretical. Until now,” Hardison said grimly.

“I know the Navy and NASA were looking at infrasonic pitch to see how it would affect personnel in ships and space vehicles … which are nothing but big, resonant metal boxes, really … to see if certain pitches would inhibit the ability of crews to perform at the highest level,” Sam added, remembering how at certain times depending on weather and engine levels a crew could suffer headaches and nausea due to the low-level frequency of the noise.

“But this is different,” Eliot interjected. “Seven hertz. It’s supposed to be the most dangerous frequency … somethin’ to do with the alpha-rhythm frequencies of the brain. A weapon with enough power might be able to turn your brain and other organs to jello,” he continued. ”But …” he added, now thoughtful, “you’d need a pretty powerful transponder and they ain’t small.”

“Well, now they are,” Hardison said. “Chet-boy’s invented a dinky little back-pack transponder an’ an infrasonic gun that works at precisely seven hertz.” He brought up a wealth of schematics on the plasma. “He had this hidden in a sub-routine on his encrypted hard-drive.” He shrugged apologetically. “It’s taken me this long to winkle it out. Man, the encryption was fearsome.”

“Sonofa …” Nathan let the whispered epithet die unfinished. “If this got into the hands of ISIL …”

“Yeah …” Eliot growled. “And bein’ in a tank or helicopter is no protection. That’s the handy thing about it … it’s selective. It just targets humans an’ nothin’ else because of the pitch.”

“You know about these things?” Sophie asked, looking at Eliot as he sat with her precious daughter on his lap, his scarred, dangerous hands gently soothing her through another flurry of hiccups.

Eliot shrugged.

“I’ve been on the wrong end of an LRAD,” he said, “but that’s ultrasound … a high frequency pitch, beyond our hearing range. Makes your head swim an’ your ears hurt like hell. It’s a very distinctive pain.”

“But you know about the infrasound thing?” Parker asked, twisting around from her place on the floor beside Eliot to gaze up into his face.

Eliot’s blue eyes glittered.

“Heard about it,” he said quietly. “Didn’t think it could be done, though.” He shook his head. “I hoped it couldn’t be done. Guess I was wrong.”

“And Osman’s willing to pay big time,” Hardison continued.

Nate stared steadily at the hacker.

“How much?”

Hardison crossed his arms.

“A million apiece,” he said.

Sam whistled.

“Any idea how many he’s buying?”

Hardison hitched a shoulder.

“Not too sure, but from his conversations with Junior I think Chet-boy has five to sell, complete with power packs and transponders. They’re still untried in the field, but hey … with ISIL funding behind him, five mill is a drop in the ocean. I think from the schematics these things’re pretty stable, and five will just be a sample for tryin’ out.”

The group was silent for long seconds, with only the occasional hiccup from Lizzie to break the quiet.

Hardison finally stirred and switched off the plasma, and then returned to his comfortable seat.

“An’ the sale’s goin’ down within the next few days, as far as I can make out from Danny the Freak’s texts to his goons. Junior’s keen to get paid, by the look of it. We know where, but we don’t exactly know when.”

Nate sat pensively in his armchair, fingers tugging at his lower lip as he ran through possibilities and scenarios in his head, but there were still a few missing pieces of the jigsaw to put in place.

“How are we going to tie in Senior? Junior’s not including him in his little plan.”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” Hardison said innocently and not a little smugly. “That’s easy-peasy.” He paused for effect for a moment or two before letting them all in on his information. “Senior’s into real estate, right? Well … he owns the whole block of derelict warehouses where Junior’s pulling off his little deal. The area’s ripe for redevelopment. When we bring down Junior, Chet-boy an’ Osman, we bring down Senior in the fall-out – and he’s not even involved. He’ll never be able to wiggle out of bein’ implicated … well, not after I’ve finished with him.” Hardison’s face lit up in a white, ear-to-ear grin. “God, I jus’ love when that happens!”

Nate smiled back, his brain working overtime.

“All we need now is the time and to figure out the sting itself. Is there any way we can bring this within our control? We set the day and time?”

Hardison had to think about that one.

“Huh …” Hardison muttered, and Nate was sure he could see the cogs turning in the young hacker’s extraordinary mind, “Maybe … maybe I can work this through Osman …” and Hardison eased himself out of his seat and meandered over to his bank of geeky goodness, mumbling to himself as he went.

Nate grinned to himself. Hardison would figure it out. He always did.

“Nate …” Eliot’s soft voice was redolent with menace. “When you got a time and place … I’m gonna be there.”

“Oh, no you’re not –“ Parker was on her knees now, eyeing Eliot with ill-disguised anger.

Nate’s hand dropped onto Parker’s shoulder, stopping her in mid-rant. He studied Eliot, who was amusing Lizzie by prodding her stomach, making the child giggle helplessly and grab at Eliot’s fingers in a well-practised game. Eliot smiled at her antics, even as he looked up at Nate.

“Figure it out, Nate. That’s what you’re good at. Just make sure I’m with you.”

Nate glanced at Sophie, who looked more than alarmed.

For a moment Nate was back in a warehouse with The Italian, and Eliot was telling him to get out of there and he would deal with who-knew-how-many armed thugs belonging to Damien Moreau. Eliot had picked up a gun – the first time Nate had ever seen the hitter handle a gun with the full intention of using it – and Nate remembered the look of deadly intent on Eliot’s face. Nate knew Eliot would probably die in the process, but he would do it willingly. And Nate had done as Eliot had commanded … he had taken The Italian and left Eliot to his fate, and the massive explosion of gunfire that followed their escape convinced him he would never see Eliot alive again.

Eliot had walked away from the battle without a scratch.

That look of deadly intent was back on Eliot’s face, even as he played with his adored god-daughter.

He knew then that Eliot would not be denied, and it wasn’t revenge for his injuries. Eliot understood and accepted that if it hadn’t been for Junior and his attack on him that night, no-one would have ever known about McAllister’s treachery. He was doing it because Junior and his plan could kill good, honest people, soldiers and civilians, and Eliot would never … never … allow that to happen. Until his dying day.

Nate nodded.

“I’ll tell you when.”

Eliot’s blue eyes gained a little warmth at the reply.

“Thanks. I’ll be ready.”

But even as Sophie began to protest and Sam and Parker both broke into an argumentative babble that Eliot wasn’t anywhere near ready for such a confrontation, Nate knew that come hell or high water, Eliot Spencer would face Danny McAllister and his lethal bunch of goons, injured as he was, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop him.


Late that night, as Hardison worked at hacking his way into Osman Osman’s service provider – a little more complicated than normal seeing as he was based in Qatar – he could faintly hear Eliot in the gym, pummelling the crap out of the punch-bag now that Sam and Parker weren’t around.

Once in a while he heard a grunt of pain, and more than once he heard Eliot hit the floor as he over-reached himself and lost his balance, usually accompanied by wheezing gasps for a minute or two as Eliot waited for his breathing to settle so that he could slowly lever himself back onto his feet. When that happened, Hardison paused in his work and waited to see if he could hear the battering of the bag begin again. At one point he heard nothing for a full five minutes and thirty-seven seconds, and he was on the point of risking Eliot’s not-inconsiderable wrath by barging into the gym and hauling the idiot hitter’s sorry ass off the floor and yell at him to stop and go to bed and rest up. But just as he eased off his seat he heard the now-familiar punch-punch-thwack of Eliot’s rhythmic routine begin once more, very slowly becoming smoother, faster and deadlier.

Hardison ran his hand over his face and shook his head. This was killing him, listening to Eliot work at pushing his badly damaged body to do as it was told. But … that was what Eliot did, and all they could do as a team was try their best to make sure he didn’t wreck himself in the process.

He sighed deeply.

To take his mind off worrying himself witless about his brother, he decided he’d mess with Junior.


Danny McAllister Junior planned to ease his jitters by having an evening at a bareknuckle fight not too far from his father’s block of derelict warehouses in Midway.

He had picked up his precious Porsche that morning after having the on-board computer and GPS replaced and a new PCM system installed, although the investigation by the expert staff at the dealership had said there was absolutely nothing wrong with any of them. Danny had railed abuse at them and told them to just damn well do as they were told.

He knew he would run into Osman at the fight, and he decided he would try and get the man to set a time and date within the next couple of days to do the deal. And then Danny would be gone. He didn’t know where, just yet, but somewhere not here where … whatever it was … that was plaguing him could get at him. Although, deep in his heart, he knew that even Antarctica probably wouldn’t be safe.

Still, as he drove through abandoned streets with just the occasional street light, he looked forward to the fight this evening and seeing his sponsored fighters doing their thing.

He took his time now … there was no need to rush, and he took a chance and switched on the radio. Oh, the relief when the exquisite voice of Stevie Nicks echoed through the car singing something about thunder and rain. Danny hummed along and his tension began to ease, his fingers tapping rhythmically on the steering wheel.

So when the car engine died, he didn’t quite grasp what was happening. The car crawled slowly to a stop, and Danny just let it. His hands gripped the steering wheel as though his life depended on it, and he stared, wild-eyed, at the street ahead of him, seeing its silent, empty decaying buildings and feeble street lights.

The lights which suddenly went out and plunged the lonely, abandoned lot and Danny and his Porsche into darkness.

“Oh no … no-no-no –“ he wailed, and he tried starting the car again … and again … and nothing, and then panic set in and he wanted to get out of there so he tried to open the car door …

It was locked.

It was locked, and he couldn’t get out, oh god, and even when he grasped the door handle and shook it until he was breathless it didn’t move and then …

There was Mam.

Not there, not looking at him or soothing his forehead or rubbing his back which she did when he was sick, but singing … no Johnny Mathis this time but Mam, her soft, untrained voice sweet and lonely and loving and she sang to him from her very heart –

Thou'rt the music of my heart,
Harp of joy, oh cruit mo chridh*,
Moon of guidance by night,
Strength and light thou'rt to me …

And it was the song of his childhood, which his Mam sang when she missed the sea and crashing waves and lonely cries of the gulls, and she sang in her mother tongue which Danny didn’t understand but loved her for it … the sound of her heart singing just for him.

And she sang to him from the dead radio in this dead car, and he sobbed with the horror and the terrifying joy of it.

Danny McAllister Junior sat there for a long, long time, weeping and heart-broken and scared out of his wits. He sat there long after the car stirred into life and the street lights flickered back into being, illuminating the empty street, and the radio played Jethro Tull, and Danny heard none of it because his Mam had loved him, and she was gone, and all Danny had left in his life was the all-consuming hatred he had for his father.

 

To be continued ...

Chapter Text

Osman Osman liked America. In fact, in general, he liked Americans in all of their guises. He had been educated here, and as the son of a wealthy businessman he had found the networking opportunities most promising, and over the years he had expanded his father’s business ten-fold. Now it had seven international offices world-wide and he enjoyed the benefits of all that entailed.

He sat in his hotel’s luxurious dining area and enjoyed the light seafood lunch he had ordered, including a bottle of Bougros Grand Cru Chablis, savouring its green, flinty hints.

He had no concerns about drinking alcohol. Although born into Islam, he had no religious affiliations. He was a businessman, pure and simple. Which was why he had no issue whatsoever with dealing with the less savoury elements in this complicated world … an association which had increased his wealth well beyond what his parents would have ever guessed.

He took a sip of the Chablis, and smiled.

His parents, both devout Muslims and good, kind people, would be horrified and disgusted if they knew of his connections. He mentally shrugged. He really didn’t care. Osman Osman didn’t let his familial responsibilities interfere with making a lot of money, and those insane zealots who thought they were winning their pointless jihad against the west paid very well indeed. They would lose. But in the meantime, he could do very well out of them.

His ponderings were interrupted by a ping from his ‘cell phone. He checked the text which appeared on the screen.

It was Danny McAllister, the sad little excuse of a human being who just happened to have access to a specific kind of merchandise which would make Osman Osman richer than even he would have believed.

He had hoped to see the young fool at the fight the previous night, but the boy was conspicuous by his absence. But Osman Osman was nothing if not patient, and Danny had finally decided to get in touch.

Meet. 3 days frm now 7pm usual place. Danny was eager to get this deal done, it seemed.

Osman smiled. About time.

All ready? He answered.

Yes Brg $$$. It appeared, Osman thought, that Danny was very impatient – which was fine by Osman.

CU then. Osman pressed ‘send’. In three days’ time at 7pm. Perfect. His smile widened into a grin.


Danny sat on a bench in Washington Park, staring at nothing in particular and trying to control his shaking hands.

He had spent the night just sitting in the Porsche at that lonely, abandoned block of warehouses, unable – and definitely unwilling – to go anywhere, let alone enjoy a bareknuckle match or two. He had intended discussing the sale of the merchandise with Osman, but he knew that he could not have managed to talk, let alone discuss five million dollars’ worth of business. He wiped away an unbidden tear as it trickled down his cheek.

God, he missed his Mam.

His cell-phone burbled. Hauling it out of his jacket pocket, he checked his messages. A deep sigh of relief burst from his lungs.

Meeting. 7pm 3days from now. Same place I’ll pay after checking samples.

Danny closed his eyes and let the dull sun beat on his face. The relief was almost painful. He texted back.

OK

He slid the ‘phone back into his pocket. He was getting fifty percent of the payment for brokering the deal, and Chet would get the remainder and not have his proclivities for young girls leaked to the press and police. The money, Danny decided, would go a long way towards making his father see that Danny was a competent and powerful man. But he also needed to get away for a while. He was thinking about Venezuela, where he had other highly lucrative contacts.

If only his Mam wouldn’t haunt him so, no matter that he loved her more than life itself.

He watched people walk their dogs or run, and he sighed again. Time was of the essence. He had things to organise.

Standing up, he rubbed his face and nodded to himself.

His Mam would be so proud of him.

And then he was heading out of the park with a new sense of purpose. In three days, he was going to not only be much richer, but a respected man in his own right.


Hardison watched as the texts appeared on his screen, and then he sighed and looked up at Nate.

“It’s done. I’ve made it three days from now at the warehouse, 7pm. Any later than that an’ we risk Junior or Osman takin’ it into their own hands an’ then we lose control. Junior will be contacting Chet-boy. That’s how long we got to set everything up.” He paused for a moment. “Are you gonna tell Eliot or do you want me to do it?”

Nate shook his head.

“Let me.” His voice was guarded.

He could hear Eliot in the gym, working hard at driving his wounded body to the limit and probably beyond. Three days was all they could give him to prepare for this … this … whatever it was … which Eliot had going on in his head. And Nate was deathly afraid that it would cripple, or even kill their hitter.

“We can’t let him do this, Nate,” Hardison said, a hint of desperation in his voice. “We jus’ can’t. He’s gonna damn well get himself killed, an’ we gotta stop him!”

Nate ran fingers through his hair, tugging slightly at the curls in frustration.

“How? Just how do we do that without making him unable to trust us ever again? Do you have any ideas, Hardison, because I sure as hell don’t!”

“But we can take the McAllisters without all of this!” Hardison retorted, his voice breaking with anger. “What the hell is wrong with him?”

The hacker looked over at Parker, sitting on the couch playing with Lizzie, but both men could see her heart wasn’t in it. She couldn’t stop a flinch every time Eliot hit the punch-bag, and she was no longer able to watch him do this to himself. It made her angry beyond belief, and it terrified her. Parker was not coping at all, Hardison could tell. The little thief was riddled with guilt and helplessness, not understanding what was driving Eliot to face these men, three of whom had almost killed him.

Nate knew why.

This was Eliot’s job. This was what he did, and would continue to do for as long as he could. It was a barrier he had to break through, to prove to himself again that he was worthy of it. His family needed him, and he would answer the call. He couldn’t take the chance that something would go wrong and put his family – especially his Lizzie – in any kind of danger. Not when he could put himself in the way of any harm that might come to the people who mattered the most.

Nate came to a decision.

“Hardison … I want you to look at this place where the meet’s taking place and go over it with a fine toothcomb. I want every single inch of it studied from every angle you can think of and then some. I want Eliot covered as well as we can. I want us to be able to step in and protect him if need be.”

Hardison frowned.

“But Nate, he’s not gonna –“

“I don’t care if he realises we’re going to try and back him up. We need him to be as safe … no, not the right word … that won’t work with Eliot … as supported as we can. If the idiot’s decided to do this, we can’t stop him, because we have to take down the McAllisters and this Osman. We have no choice, because if we don’t it puts thousands of lives at risk, and Eliot will take on the whole bunch of ‘em on his own if he has to, you know that. He also knows he has us caught between a rock and a hard place, because if we don’t let him do this he’ll find a way where we won’t be there and he’ll end up dead because he didn’t have backup. So …” Nate took a deep, steadying breath, “ … we have to have every precaution in place we can think of so he can walk away from this with his damn’ pride and goddamn Eliot Spencer sense of righteousness intact.” Nate scowled, frustrated beyond measure. “He needs to prove to himself that he can keep us – and what appears to be the whole goddamn world - safe.”

Hardison stared at Nate for long moments, his eyes echoing the desperation in his heart, but then he wiped a hand over his face and looked away, studying the texts still stark on the big screen. He took a deep breath.

“Okay … okay, Nate … lemmee think about it. Danny’ll bring his goons with him, an’ I have no idea who Osman’s gonna bring along. Eliot will have enough to deal with jus’ takin’ out Junior an’ his bunch – if Osman has backup, Eliot will be well an’ truly screwed. He ain’t anywhere near fit enough to deal with Junior, let alone Osman. An’ … none of us are exactly Muhammad Ali, man. So … I’ll figure out what I can do, an’ I’ll leave you to think about how to deal with Osman, okay? Will that work?”

Nate nodded. Yeah … that would work. Thoughts and ideas were percolating already through his brain, and he knew Hardison would push the envelope as far as he could to make sure the environment in which this sting would take place was as prepared as possible, because Eliot’s life would be in serious danger.

Pulling out his cell ‘phone, he speed-dialled a number.


Danny McAllister looked across the table at Chet Morris, taking in the non-descript man with his bland, blink-and-you-miss-me features, and allowed himself a tight smile.

“Three days from now,” he said as he took a sip of the coffee before him as they sat in this local diner, “you be ready. I’ll tell you where nearer the time.”

Chet nodded, pulling at the neatly trimmed moustache inhabiting his upper lip as mud-brown eyes studied Danny McAllister Junior.

“Don’t worry about me,” he drawled, “I’ll be ready an’ waitin’.” He smiled. This was going to be a sweet, sweet deal, especially with the chance to sell a lot more of his infrasonic units down the line.

“But I want you to do something else for me,” Danny replied, his smile relaxing a little. “You need to bring something extra … and you’re just the man to provide it,” he said.

And as Chet Morris listened to Danny’s request his eyes widened with surprise and not a little fear.


“Parker?”

“Yah-huh??” she replied, her eyes lacklustre as she glanced back at Nate as he sat down beside her on the couch, Lizzie turning to give her father her special daddies-only smile. Nate winked at her, and Lizzie giggled.

“I need you to do something,” Nate murmured quietly.

Parker frowned. She really wasn’t in the mood to do anything right now, other than locking Eliot Spencer in a deep, very secure dungeon somewhere with a nice, warm, comfy bed where he would rest properly, and where he would eat lots of good food so that he would regain the weight he had lost, and where he couldn’t do the dumbest, stupidest thing he had ever planned to do in his entire life, which was take on Danny McAllister Junior and his goons and get hurt again, or even killed.

And she, Parker, would hold the key and wouldn’t let him out until it was all over and done with. And then she would leave him in there and shout at him through the heavy, spikey door and he would have to listen, because he couldn’t do anything else. And then she would leave him in there for a few more weeks … okay, maybe only for a few days … until he understood it was all for his own good.

She glared at Nate.

“What?”

“Parker … we have to make sure Eliot –“

“He’s a dumb-ass!!” she hissed, not thinking about Lizzie’s precious ears. Lizzie chortled.

“Yeah …” Nate sighed , “ … yeah, I know. Which is why I want you to do a Thing.”

Parker frowned.

“What kind of Thing?” she asked warily.

“It’s to help Eliot. Although we can’t stop him other than by tying him up someplace triple-locked and with a timer –“

“Huh …” Parker pondered. “Didn’t think of that,” and added it to her Eliot-in-a-Dungeon Plan.

“… we have to make sure he’s as safe as we can make him in the situation without getting in his way.” Nate forged on regardless.

Parker thought about it. She wasn’t happy at the idea, but it was better than nothing.

“What do you want me to do?” she asked, thinking this was better than doing nothing but think evil thoughts.

Nate smiled. Finally!

"Hardison has some plans regarding the meeting place. Think you can get in there?”

Parker’s eyes suddenly had life and hope in them.

“Ohhhh yeah!” she said, nodding, and her eyes narrowed like a panther on the hunt.

This was more like it!

And as Nate described his plan, Parker began to smile.


It was getting late, Eliot thought, as he sat on the wrought iron bench he had installed a long time ago in the little vegetable garden he had created on the brewpub roof. Here he grew seasonal vegetables and fruit as well as herbs for the kitchen, so that he could supplement the menus he created and make sure the customers had the very best. It was also a little home-from-home for him, much like the tiny garden he had created on the roof of his apartment block. Here he could sit and think and take his ease away from the stresses of working in a team. Here, just for a little while, he could catch his breath.

He winced as he shifted his position. He was stiff and very, very sore, and his body was screaming with exhaustion. What would have normally been a useful hour or so working the tension from muscles and keeping his reflexes razor sharp had become the unthinkable. It was torture.

He was slow, unbalanced and weaker than he had ever been before. He had lost weight during his illness, and his muscles –especially in his bad leg – were suffering from lack of use, despite Parker’s hard work in trying to keep them from wasting.

Eliot knew his plan was insane. Stupid. Nothing but downright lunacy. And he knew was hurting his team by facing McAllister and his heavies, but … he had to do this. Had to. Because if he couldn’t protect his family, then what use was he? Because his family protected and helped the good people in this world by upsetting lots of bad people, and it was his job to make sure they were safe while they did so. It was the right thing to do in the long run, and they would get over it.

He hoped they would, anyway.

Then the door to the little stairway creaked open and he heard footsteps. He sighed. Damn. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone??

“Lizzie’s missed you today,” Sophie said quietly as she wandered over to the bench, Lizzie tucked into her side.

Lizzie. His best girl.

“Missed her too,” he replied gruffly, and laying his walking stick aside he reached out to take her as Sophie handed Lizzie over to her god-father. “Hey, ‘Lizbeth Grace … how’s my sweetheart?” he murmured, holding her against his chest.

Lizzie reached for Eliot’s face and patted him gently, smiling a toothy smile while making little scribbly sounds which passed for intense conversation in Lizzie-speak as she told him about her day.

Sophie sat down beside Eliot and looked over the lights of the city spread out before them, and listened to the sounds of the night. She listened too, to Eliot, the most dangerous person she had ever known, speak so softly and with such love in his growly voice to the little girl who ruled his life and held his heart in the palm of her hand.

“Eliot?” she said, her tone soft with concern.

“You gonna lecture me too, Soph?” he asked as Lizzie burrowed into his shoulder, cackling and hugging.

“There’s no point, really, is there?” she said calmly, and she studied her daughter and the guardian of her soul as he held her, fierce and loving and oh-so-gentle, a lone wolf and his cub. “You’re going to put yourself in real danger and there is nothing any of us can do to stop you.”

“Has to be done, Sophie,” Eliot replied. “It’s as simple as that.”

No it doesn’t, she thought, but kept it to herself.

“I’m just going to ask one thing, Eliot.”

“Can’t promise anythin’,” he answered, and Sophie could hear the amusement in his voice.

“Oh shut up, you fool!” she said, unable to stop a fleeting smile which quickly faded into concern. “Listen to me, Eliot Spencer.”

“Listenin’” he agreed, still with a smile in his voice.

“You come back to us. After this, you walk away and you come back to us, and you come back to Lizzie and you be safe and you rest. You heal and you take care of yourself, because I’m damned if I have to explain to Lizzie when she’s older why you’re in a wheelchair or worse still, why we visit some bloody grave with a marker with your name on it.” Sophie turned and looked Eliot square in the eye. “You matter, Eliot. And I don’t want my daughter to grow up without her best friend. Got it??”

Eliot studied Sophie for a moment, and then tightened his arms around Lizzie as though she could heal him simply by being close to his heart.

Then he nodded.

“Yeah, Soph. I got it.”

And the hitter and the grifter and the grifter’s child sat for a while among the warm scents of herbs and the distant sounds of humanity, and were content.


On this inky, moonless night, a figure moved silently across the apex of the roof of a disused warehouse in the Midway district. The figure was indistinct … almost inhuman, crouched and misshapen, with strange bumps and protuberances as it made its way across the roof. It was surprisingly agile for such a strange-shaped creature, but it soon halted beside a broken skylight and straightened.

The soft starlight and the feeble street-lighting below cast a momentary glimmer on the figure as it straightened and began to shed its lumps and odd angles and suddenly became the slender figure of a young woman.

But in seconds the figure was gone … down, down through the skylight, the odd shapes lowered through the gap first, and then the night closed in around the building, and all that remained was dark shadows and silence.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text

The three days leading up to the meeting between Osman, Danny McAllister Junior and Chet Morris passed slowly for the members of Leverage International, and for all but one of them it was a difficult time.

Difficult, because they were coping with a new and completely mystifying Eliot Spencer.

While Hardison and Nate worked through the plan and Parker disappeared occasionally at night at their behest to do Parker-y things, Eliot did as they all expected him to do. He spent time in the gym, putting himself through hell, determined to hone his not-inconsiderable skills while trying to regain his balance and at least a modicum of his speed. He sweated and swore and still hit the floor every now and again, and the punch-bag took one helluva beating, day and night.

But what made Eliot more difficult than usual to live with was the fact that he was being nice.

He wasn’t out-and-out delightful, that would have been too much … but he was suddenly a lot softer around the edges.

He relaxed when he wasn’t beating the bejeebers out of his punch-bag. He smiled easily, despite the never-ending pain in his back and leg. He would sit and read a book, spectacles on and absorbed in every word, Lizzie slumped against his chest, either asleep or listening to his soft, gruff voice as he read to her. She learned a lot about bushido and how to keep soufflés light and fluffy.

There was no growling, no death glares, and worst of all, no ‘Dammit, Hardison!’s which made the young hacker very uneasy indeed.

“There’s somethin’ wrong with him!” he whispered one afternoon to Nate as they worked on the timing of the sting operation. “I mean … look at him. He’s not even scowlin’! It … it’s like he’s a pod-person or … or a genetically modified Eliot-clone with the growly gene removed.” Hardison shook his head. “It just ain’t natural!””

Nate had to agree.

“I know, I know,” he sighed. “He’s even putting up with Parker being weirder than usual. Mind you … it does make him … y’know … a bit easier to handle,” Nate added, shrugging.

Hardison frowned.

“It’s damn creepy, is what it is!!” He muttered. He didn’t know how long he could cope with Eliot actually smiling at him.

Parker dithered between being prickly and annoyed at Eliot and suddenly launching herself at him and hugging him when he least expected it, which played merry hell with his balance and his sore leg, but he would just hold her patiently and murmur quietly to her, telling her he was fine and would be fine, so she wasn’t to worry.

And not once did he tell her there was something wrong with her, which freaked Parker out even more.

He had also become a cooking fiend.

Eliot loved to cook. And most of all, he loved to cook for the people who mattered to him. The team had long been accustomed to Eliot using his considerable talent as a chef to feed them, nurture them, and in his own taciturn, grouchy way, tell his non-bio family how much he cared about them.

He cooked when a job went sour, and he cooked to celebrate the good days when people were saved and the bad guys beaten.

He cooked for Parker when she was feeling down or weird and she needed something simple and lovely to ground her.

He cooked for Hardison when the hacker had not slept for over seventy-two hours because a child’s life was at stake or a member of his team was in the shit up to their neck.

He cooked for Nate and Sophie - because now he couldn’t think of one without the other - when they had a tiff, or when Nate had a shaky day and needed a drink, or when Sophie had had yet another bad review about her latest theatrical performance.

And most of all, he cooked for Lizzie, his best girl and the light of his life.

So now he cooked because he wanted them to remember him as a man capable of love. He poured that love into every dish, every mouthful of deliciousness, treasuring their enjoyment and their pleasure, and treated every moment as though it would last a lifetime, because he didn’t have the words to tell them in any other way.

And it frightened the wits out of them.

Eliot, it seemed, was preparing to die.

Each delectable morsel was his soul-song … his death-song … the song a warrior sang as he prepared for battle, knowing he could die, and he put everything he had into each choice ingredient, his gift for those he would leave behind. This confrontation with Danny McAllister and his bunch of big, heavy, skilled hoodlums was the Eliot Spencer version of a Forlorn Hope*. He would be triumphant, or he would die in the attempt.

So he cooked, and relaxed, and smiled, and didn’t worry about having to protect his team, because they would not be on the firing line for this job. This was his battle, not theirs.

His only regret was the very real possibility of not being able to watch Lizzie grow to womanhood, but he knew Parker and Hardison would watch over her, and they would make sure she knew about him and who he was. If Sophie had to take Lizzie to that grave she had spoken about, at least Lizzie would know he had loved her more than life itself.

It was during the evening before the meet in the derelict realms of the Midway area that Eliot, clearing away after their late dinner, took Nate aside and handed him a small envelope.

“What’s this?” Nate asked, although he had a good idea.

Eliot gave him that strange, warm, affectionate smile that had been such a part of him these past few days.

“C’mon, Nate. You know what it is. If you need to … if I’m not around … call the number inside. The person who answers will take it from there. I’ve made sure you’ll all be safe, an’ what I haven’t left for you guys I’ve put in trust for Lizzie, okay?”

Nate’s eyes suddenly dimmed with unshed tears, but he smiled back at Eliot and returned the envelope.

“Won’t need it. Put it back in that box you have under the floorboards in your office. And yeah, we all know it’s there because Parker found it the week after we moved in here. You need to be a little more inventive, Eliot!” he smiled at the hitter, who would have normally sworn an oath that he would skin Parker alive and nail her hide to the front door, but this time he just sighed and shrugged.

Damn, that wasn’t right! Nate thought. He wanted the true Eliot back, the one who had permanent grouch-lines between his brows and had ‘growl’ set as his default reaction to everything, from agreeing that the pretty blonde girl at the bar was a ‘fine-lookin’ young lady’ to swearing at some nasty, vindictive piece of trash who Eliot was about to pummel into sawdust and meat.

Hardison had said more than once over the previous two days that he sorely needed to find Eliot’s reset button so he could press it and turn Eliot back into the bad-tempered, touchy, pain in the bee-hind they all knew and loved unconditionally.

“In that case, if you need it, you know where it is,” he said softly. He gazed then, into Nate’s blue eyes. “You stay out of my way tomorrow. You know that, right? I can’t be worryin’ about all of you when I got work to do.”

Nate gazed at the envelope in Eliot’s hand, and chewed his lip.

“You know I can’t guarantee that, Eliot. We’re not going to watch while you get hurt, man. We are not … not … going to stand by and watch you die.”

Eliot had to grin at that one.

“Thought you had more faith in me than that, Nate,” he replied, his voice gruff with humour despite the deadly seriousness of the situation. “I’m not settin’ out to get killed. I’m just makin’ sure I can do what I gotta do is all. Just … stay out of my way. Okay?”

And then Eliot tucked the envelope back into his jeans pocket, glanced back at Nate, his eyes hollow and tired, and nodded.

“Goin’ to bed. See you in the mornin’.”

And before Nate could reply, Eliot lifted his walking stick and limped wearily away, heading into his bedroom and shutting the door quietly behind him.

“Damn,” Nate said. Tomorrow was going to be one hell of a day.


“I want you there at six-thirty tonight, Morris, y’hear me?” Danny hissed into his cell-phone. “We have to be ready … make sure that you bring the target. We need it to prove these things are worth buying.”

“Don’t worry, man,” Chet Morris’s voice was troubled but resigned. “I got it, an’ I’ll see you there. It’s gonna be perfect. This deal’s as good as done. Once Osman knows they work he’ll be bangin’ at my door wantin’ as many units as I can come up with. You’ll have your money an’ I can get back to doin’ my stuff.”

Danny grimaced to himself, but he knew Morris was keen to get this meeting over and done with and get his share. All Danny wanted was to get the hell out of Portland and find some peace somewhere quiet and remote for a while.

“Just be there,” was all he said before ringing off.

Leaning back on his couch he looked at the three men who would be going with him. Two were his usual men, big and vicious, earning their pay in the bareknuckle ring and side-lining as Danny’s protection and associates when he felt like a prowl around the streets looking for someone to ease his itch for retribution. It was easier to find someone drunk and easy prey for his vindictiveness.

The only exception had been that long-haired bastard from the brewpub who had damaged one of his men and crippled another so badly that Danny had had to pay him off and send him packing. And this was why the third man was a bit of a departure for Danny.

The man gazed at him serenely from his place by the window of Danny’s living room as he turned from peering out at the Portland skyline.

Small and slightly built but young and moving with the grace of an athlete, he smiled at Danny, white teeth gleaming. Danny had to admit he was a little scared of the man. He came from Malaysia or somewhere, Danny didn’t really care, and from what he had been told by the contact who had recommended the man to Danny, he was lethal. Just what Danny needed on a night like tonight, where things could rapidly turn nasty.

“We go in two hours,” he told the man, who went by the name of Singa.

Singa nodded, smiling.

“I’ll be ready. Don’t worry. It’ll be fine,” he said, his voice soft and almost accent-less, his English fluent and easy.

Danny looked at his other two men, all muscle and hard fists, and swallowed. Yeah, he thought. It’ll be fine. Just fine.


“They’re movin’,” Hardison said into his team’s earbuds.

It was six-thirty, and Lucille was parked as unobtrusively as possible in a side alley across the street from the derelict warehouse where Danny would meet with Osman Osman, and make the deal that could cost thousands of service personnel their lives as the battle against ISIL continued from Afghanistan, to Somalia, Libya and Sinai.

Nate waited in the shadows to Lucille’s left, watching as a skinny moon rose above them on this cold night. He was on his own. Parker was keeping Sophie and Lizzie company back at Leverage HQ, and they were all watching the interior of the warehouse from the well-hidden cameras Parker had carefully installed over the previous two nights.

How many? came Eliot’s enquiry through the earbud. The hitter was a hundred yards from Nate, pressed up against the wall of the warehouse, watching for any other intrusions by unknown assailants that even Hardison’s state-of-the-art tech might have missed.

“Danny an’ three goons,” Hardison said, frowning as he watched Danny and his men exit an SUV parked beside the hidden entrance to the warehouse. “Don’t recognise one of ‘em,” Hardison muttered. “He’s no bareknuckle fighter. But I guess Junior had to replace Mister Broken Elbow with somebody.”

Any chance at running facial recognition? Nate whispered.

Jeez, Nate! I know I’m good, but I’m not that good! Gimmee a spotlight an’ I might have somethin’ to work with, but moonlight?

Yeah, well, it was worth a try, Nate replied, a hint of amusement in his voice. Eliot? You okay?

Hardison, despite his worry for his best friend, had to smile as Eliot let out a sigh of annoyance. That was more like the Eliot he knew.

Yeah, Nate … I’m just perfect, so shut up an’ let me work, will ya? Eliot rumbled, and Hardison heard the soft grunt of pain as Eliot shifted slightly to ease his leg.

“Okay, people … here we go … they’re entering the warehouse …” Hardison said, his focus on keeping his team up to speed and as safe as possible. “Ah – here’s Morris … to your left, Nate.”

Nate peered around the edge of the alley, careful to keep out of the weak moonshine. A big, silver Dodge RAM pulled up beside Danny’s SUV, and Morris dropped down from the driver’s side and waited for a moment or two. Then Danny’s two big thugs emerged from the warehouse and helped the Texan unload boxes from the canopied flat bed, hauling them over the tailgate and carting each box between them into the warehouse. It took only minutes for the five boxes to be removed, and then Morris wandered around to the passenger side and opened the door.

“Oh … shit!” Hardison swore.

What is it? Eliot asked, his voice soft and urgent.

I can’t see from this angle, Hardison! Nate hissed, What the hell’s going on -

“It’s a girl, Nate!! Chet-boy’s brought a girl with him!”

What? Why? Nate asked, confused.

But before Hardison could answer, yet another vehicle arrived, a big, black Daimler with darkened windows, the reflection of which Nate could see even in the dark.

Hell – that’s Osman! Nate hissed. He’s early!

“Chet’s takin’ the girl inside, Nate! She can’t be more than fifteen, dammit. Why the hell –“

She’s the target, Hardison. Eliot’s voice was rich with fury. He’s usin’ her as the practice target. They’re gonna kill her. She’s gonna be the proof the guns work so Osman’ll cough up the cash. Hardison heard Eliot take a deep breath and then, for the first time in days, let rip. SonofaBITCH!!

And then, in a blink of an eye, Eliot was gone. Hardison winced as his earbud screeched, and he knew Eliot had taken his own earbud out and smashed it.

“Oh no … no, no, Eliot … don’t you do this –“ he swore, panic rife in his voice.

What the hell is he doing? Nate demanded, his voice pitchy with anger.

“The girl. He’s goin’ after the girl, Nate!! She’s just a kid! He’s gonna go get her, damn him!!”

For a second Hardison thought Nate had also taken out his earbud, but then he heard the man punching a number into his cell ‘phone. Nate’s voice, when it came, was full of urgency.

Guys? It’s a go. Eliot’s gone off plan. Take Osman.

He didn't know who the hell Nate was talking to, but then Hardison heard a sound that took him a few seconds to identify. Then he figured out what it was. Nate was checking the load on his little snub-nosed thirty-eight pistol, the one he kept locked in his safe at home.

Hardison? Nate whispered. Monitor inside. Tell me what Eliot’s doing until I can figure out how to work through this goddamn mess.

And then Nate was off, and Hardison brought up the interior of the warehouse, and just hoped against hope that Eliot hadn’t just written his own death sentence.

 

To be continued …


Author’s Note:

*Forlorn Hope - a band of soldiers or other combatants chosen to take the leading part in a military operation, such as an assault on a defended position, where the risk of casualties is high.

Chapter Text

Danny smiled as Osman Osman made his way into the old warehouse, the stark lighting illuminating the scene before him.

Osman wasn’t alone. He had a tall, dark-haired man in a bland blue suit with him, carrying three black bags, slim, luggage-sized shapes held easily in the man’s strong hands. Osman carried another two. Danny knew that the bags were made of Kevlar and contained one million dollars in each, all in hundred-dollar bills, used and non-sequential. Danny’s smile widened.

“Where do ya want her?” Chet asked quietly.

Danny, not taking his eyes off Osman, gestured at a chair on the far side of the warehouse.

“There. Is she –“

“Yeah, I doped her. She’s not gonna be missed. Street kid … bought her outta Atlanta.”

Danny swallowed his distaste at the idea of buying children, but he dealt with it.

Chet nodded at Danny’s two heavyweights and the men half-carried, half-dragged a slight, dirty-blonde girl barely into her teens and dressed in scruffy clothes over to the chair, and using zip-ties, bound her to the seat. The girl never uttered a sound, and when Danny finally looked at her, he could see hazy green eyes and a slack mouth, and her sleeve was pulled up over her elbow and a series of bruises lay dark along the veins.

“She’s not gonna feel much, right?” he asked nervously.

“Hey, you asked me to bring her,” Chet said scornfully. “What do you care? Anyway, she’s too stoned to feel much of anythin’, so don’t worry your purty li’l head, man,” he continued, laying on the accent just for fun. “It’ll be over for her ‘fore she knows it. It’ll be a li’l messy though. Think you can stomach it?” He grinned maliciously.

Danny swallowed bile, and to take his mind off the girl, he turned to Osman.

“Good to see you,” he murmured as he saw Osman look at the girl and then at Chet Morris.

“What is this?” Osman asked, his voice accented, cultured and soft.

“You wanted to see if these things worked,” Danny countered, “You said you wanted to see a test – so I organised a test. Are you squeamish or something? Because I can always test it on your man there if –“

Osman smiled at Danny’s attempt at bravado.

“The girl’s fine.” He put down the bags and crossed his arms, curious now. “So … how long will this take?” he asked, checking his watch. “I have reservations for dinner at eight-thirty, and then I have to arrange transport for the items with my contacts.”

Chet Morris answered for Danny.

“Not long. Give me ten minutes to set it up, and then you can decide if we have a deal or not. Okay?”

Osman studied Morris and then Danny’s men, his gaze lingering on the slightly-built Malaysian standing in the background watching the proceedings. Danny’s fighters he knew about, but this man … he was dangerous. Deadly. And very, very interesting. He was one to watch … and possibly one to recruit at a later date.

He nodded.

“Proceed.”

Morris grinned. Turning to one of the cases, he began to unpack his wares.


Hardison was convinced he was going to be deafened for life.

What the hell does he think he’s doing –

Sophie, irate beyond belief.

Eliot!!! Eliot, don’t you dare do this –

Parker, panicking.

And so it went on as the two of them watched desperately on the big plasma screen at HQ, not caring that Eliot had destroyed his earbud and was to all intents and purposes off-grid.

“STOP!” Hardison yelled, and winced at the feedback from the volume on his head-set. “He can’t hear you, but I can an’ you’re deafenin’ me! Nate’s workin’ on it –“

Yeah, but Eliot’s hurt! Parker’s voice was high-pitched with terror, he was supposed to wait –

“I know, Parker,” Hardison snapped, “but you know Eliot an’ kids in danger – he’s gotta go roarin’ in there like goddamn Superman an’ –“

But he’s not Superman, Hardison! He’s Eliot! and he’s … he’s … I’m coming over there! Parker hissed, furious and unable to control her fear for her friend.

No you’re not, Parker, Nate’s voice was soft and controlled. We need you there with Sophie to handle the tech. I’ll tell you when. I have Osman in view. When I tell you, Sophie … do your thing. Hardison, be ready with the modulator. I’ll go see if I can stop Eliot from getting himself killed, okay?

For some unfathomable reason, Nate’s calm voice did the trick. Hardison heard Sophie take a deep breath and then made a sound as though she was hugging Parker, who whimpered.

Nate … you make sure he comes back to us safe and sound, hear me? Sophie’s voice was steady now, and, Hardison knew, her eyes would be icy calm. I want my daughter’s guardian and best friend home safe, with us.

I’ll do my best, Nate replied, his voice now a whisper. I promise, Soph. Love you.

There was no answer, but no-one expected a reply. Sophie would deal with whatever came.

So, with his heart pounding like a pile-driver in his chest, Hardison checked his equipment and prepared to try and save Eliot’s life.


Chet Morris quickly had the infra-gun set up. He slipped on the backpack, and toggled a switch on the reinforced pad on the left-hand strap. A small, red light lit blinked on the rectangular pack on his back and Osman could hear a faint hum. The gun itself was just a slender wand-like apparatus set into a firing unit.

He grinned at Osman.

“Got the idea from Ghostbusters,” he said cheerily. “Danny … you an’ your guys back up a little will ya?” He checked the firing mechanism and nodded. Everything was ready. He squinted at the semi-conscious girl sitting limply on the chair at the other end of the warehouse. “Let me know when,” he added, looking back at Osman. Danny closed his eyes.

Osman looked at his compatriot and smiled.

“Any time you like,” he said to Morris.

The Texan hefted the Infra-gun and aimed at the girl.

“Touch that trigger and I’ll kill you,” said a soft, gruff voice behind them.

For the longest moment, everything stopped. Danny’s eyes popped open, and then the moment was past. Morris, Danny and Osman turned to see the source of the voice, as did Danny’s enforcers and Osman’s bland-looking sidekick.

Before them, bathed in a pool of light, stood a stocky man with long hair swept neatly back into a ponytail, blue eyes blazing as he leaned heavily on a walking stick. The man smiled, but there was no humour in it.

Osman frowned. What the hell was going on? He turned to his aide.

“Kill him.” He said softly.

And out of the shadows, dark and deadly and silent, a figure came. In a split second the aide had a hand around his chin, pulling it upwards, and another hand carrying a gleaming lock knife came around and pressed the blade against the soft, exposed skin of his throat.

“Don’t,” said a black-clad Joe Bartulis, ex-marine, covert operator and brewpub cook. He pressed the razor-sharp blade against the man’s neck, and a trickle of hot blood made its way down to the white collar of his shirt.

Osman started, alarmed, and his right hand began to slide into the folds of his beautifully-tailored suit jacket.

“Uh-uh-uh!” said a voice, and he took a step backwards as a big man emerged from beyond the shadowed pillar beside him. “I’ll take that, man – I guess you don’t have a license for that gun, huh!” said Sam, as he reached over and slid a chromed Glock from Osman’s shoulder holster. Osman’s eyes widened as the semi-automatic turned in his direction. Sam smiled at him. “Hands up!” His smile widened into a grin. “Damn, I always wanted to say that!”

Morris broke free of the moment, and the Infra-gun swung in Sam’s direction, but he suddenly heard the snick of a hammer being pulled back on a revolver and he felt the chill of a gun barrel pressed against the back of his head.

“You’ll have at least two rounds spattering your brains over the floor before you can even pull the trigger,” Nate said, and never had he sounded more deadly. Reaching forward, he switched off the backpack and unclipped the shoulder straps. The pack and infra-gun hit the concrete floor, making Morris flinch.

Danny McAllister Junior was still staring at Eliot, who, although disconcerted by the appearance not only of Nate but his two cookery-infatuated friends, had taken it in his stride.

“I know you … ” Danny murmured, and gestured to his guards to hold back from killing the intruder who was ruining his deal. “Where … “he frowned, puzzled. And then it hit him. “The brewpub! You’re the asshole who screwed up my date at the brewpub! Man …” he said, his memories now overwhelming his concerns over his precious deal. Once Eliot was dealt with, he was sure the others could be taken care of. “I thought you were dead!”

Eliot’s smile widened.

“Guess not,” he said.

Singa, still holding back from the group, took a step forward and studied the man before him, even as Danny straightened and gestured at his two bareknuckle fighters, who were absorbing the evidence of the walking stick and the man’s obvious limp.

“Wait a moment,” Singa said, resting a hand for a moment on Danny’s shoulder. He set cold eyes on the young man’s features and Danny took a step back. Yeah … this man frightened him.

Knowing Danny would now hold back for a moment, and ignoring Nate and the two men now handcuffing Osman and his aide to concrete pillars, Singa walked a few paces towards Eliot, who straightened a little as the Malaysian perused him.

Singa nodded.

“Eliot Spencer. I finally get to meet you face to face.” His smile was like that of a hungry shark. “Damien spoke of you many times.” His eyes were chilly. “None of it was particularly complimentary, of course, but still … he respected you.”

Eliot shrugged.

“Yeah … well, I’m never particularly complimentary about him either, an’ especially now, since we put him in prison a few years ago.” He thought for a moment. “Singa. You were just a kid when Moreau an’ I parted ways. Cocky young bastard, I heard. You’ve not changed, I see.”

Singa bowed his head in acknowledgement, his smile fading.

“Well, I’m sorry to say, you’ve changed a lot, and not for the better,” he said slowly. “I keep hearing about you. About how deadly you are … about how you help people now … about how heroic you are …” Singa curled his lip. “But all I see is a crippled, washed-up has-been.” He gestured at the stick. “A lame, beaten-up old soldier with nowhere to go but into the nearest grave,” he added. “I wouldn’t soil my hands on you. These slow, muscle-bound fools should be able to take you out easily enough.” He turned to Danny, waving dismissively at Eliot. “He’s all yours.”

One of Danny’s men slid a set of brass knuckles onto the fingers of his right hand.

“Eliot –“ Nate took his eyes off Morris for a moment or two and glanced at his friend.

“S’okay, Nate. Get Chet tied up an’ then look after the girl. I’ll be with you in a little bit.” Eliot’s smile became rueful. “You promised you’d stay outta my way, remember.”

Nate looked over at Sam and Joe, seeing the concern in their eyes. He took a deep breath.

“Okay. Okay, Eliot. We’ll keep clear.” And even as he said it, he nodded at Sam and Joe. They would monitor the situation very closely indeed.

And as Nate took a step back, grabbing Chet by the scruff of the neck and hauling him sideways to cuff him to a pillar, Danny’s two fighters eased their way to stand on either side of Eliot, both of them openly grinning as they began to circle the hitter.

Danny realised that his deal was finished. He wasn’t going to get his money, and if he wasn’t quick about it, he would be in prison forever, and his father would have no qualms about leaving him there. He began to edge sideways towards the door.

A strong hand grabbed him by the shoulder.

“Stay. It’s going to be fine,” Singa said. “You’ll get your money. My contract is to protect you and your deal, and I always fulfil my contracts,” he added.

Danny stared into dark, oblique eyes and believed the man. He slowly began to relax, and his eyes strayed back to the maimed man before him, taking in the black stick on which Eliot leaned so heavily.

Eliot studied the two men beginning to close on him, and then he sighed.

“Singa … we’ll talk again in a few minutes, after I deal with these two idiots. So stick around, why dontcha?” Eliot sounded amused, even as he settled his body into a simple fighting stance, using the stick as a balance.

Singa let go of Danny’s shoulder and positioned himself on one of Chet’s boxes, pulling a comb from his pocket and neatening his well-trimmed hair.

“I’ll be here … if you last that long,” he answered.

Eliot was silent then, but he really wasn’t listening to Singa. He caught a glimpse of Nate watching him with eyes wide, and then he zoned everything out and focused on his breathing while allowing his senses to take over.

His balance was as good as it was going to get, and he felt the grip of the wolf’s head in his right hand … his heartbeat slowed, and his hearing caught the sounds of the men’s clothes rustling and the creak of the brass knuckles as one of them clenched his fist. The smell of sweat and stale cologne assailed his nostrils … that was the one to his left … the smell would help track the man through the space around him.

The first punch missed him. Brass Knuckles was fast, but his bulky muscles inhibited him. He was big and very strong, and his speed was good, but Eliot easily swayed away from the blow and surprised everyone with a vicious punch to the man’s ribs as the man tried to compensate for overbalancing. Knuckles had not expected a man with a walking stick and a bust-up leg to be able to move so quickly.

Eliot followed up the punch with another to the man’s kidney as he fell past him, and then shifting onto his bad leg he brought his stick around and slammed it against Cologne’s chest as the big man tried to smash Eliot’s ribs with a deadly punch to his side. Eliot grunted with agony at the pressure on his leg, but he managed a step sideways and brought the stick back so that he could lean on it to help him pivot.

Both of Danny’s thugs staggered back, surprised and hurt, and Eliot took the few seconds to try and control the pain and his breathing, which was catching in his chest with the effort of moving so quickly and with such power.

“C’mon,” he gasped, “think you can take an’ ol’ beat-up sonofabitch, huh? C’mon!

And he lifted his free hand and gave the two surprised fighters a ‘come get me!’ gesture, his face breaking into a feral grin.

The two men surged forward.

Nate watched, awestruck, even as he heard Sophie and Parker rant at him through the earbud as Hardison tried his best to calm both of them.

Eliot wove black light around his body, the ebony stick a blur as he led a deadly dance around the bodies of the two big men intent on ending his life. Knuckles caught Eliot’s left shoulder and tried to unbalance him, but Eliot, dropping down below his reach, brought the heavy stick down on Knuckles’ wrist. The snap of bones and the shriek of agony made Eliot grimace with satisfaction, even as his muscles roared with the strain and his leg threatened to dump him to the floor.

As Knuckles stumbled away, Cologne caught Eliot from behind, wrapping powerful arms around his chest and tightening his hold. The pain from Eliot’s damaged ribs made him yell in agony and his back arched, but he managed to slam his foot down on Cologne’s instep. It didn’t work. Cologne’s grip intensified. Eliot began to wheeze. His ribs compressed and he couldn’t breathe, and the half-healed bone protested and began to give way.

Desperately, agonisingly, Eliot shifted the stick slowly through his grip until the wolf’s head, heavy and solid, lay eighteen inches above his grasp. All he could move was his forearm and Cologne was too tall for Eliot to knock senseless with a head-butt, but as the wolf’s head slid into a natural state of balance in Eliot’s hand, he twirled it around and in a last-ditch attempt before the encroaching blackness of unconsciousness overtook him, he raised his arm as far as he could and slammed the wolf’s head as hard as he could alongside Cologne’s skull.

The man dropped like a stone. But he took Eliot with him and the hitter crashed to the floor with a yelp of pure agony as his chest slammed against the concrete.

Oh god, Eliot!! Nate!! DO something!! Sophie’s voice was on the edge of hysteria.

Nate could see Joe and Sam start forward and he couldn’t stop himself begin to move towards the prone hitter, but then … but then Eliot moved and groaned and got to his knees, head hanging, and managed against all the odds to get to his feet, chest heaving and breath hitching and a wild, wolfish grin on his face as he glared at Singa.

The Malaysian had not moved until now. His expression had changed, though, from a look of disdain to one of serious intent.

Nate stumbled to a halt and raised a hand. Sam and Joe did the same, and slowly took steps back to stand beside Osman and his aide.

But no-one was watching Danny.

He was done, he knew. Nothing could save him, not even the Malaysian, because this crippled, beaten man had defeated his two best fighters and then he would beat the Malaysian, he knew that now, and he just had to get out of here.

Eliot had regained his balance and his stance, and his eyes glittered with deadly intent.

Singa eased himself upright, and studied Eliot. He smiled, although the smile was not quite as steady as it had been. He would face this man and he would kill him, because it was the only way now to stop him.

But then Danny stumbled forward and delved into his pocket, bringing out a small revolver. He pointed it shakily at Eliot and pulled the trigger, and the bullet hit Eliot squarely and solidly in the left-hand side of his chest.

 

To be continued …

Chapter Text

The impact of the round staggered Eliot and drove him to one knee, a grunt of pure pain coming from his throat … but he didn’t fall.

Hardison, trying uselessly to deal with the irate and terrified voices of Sophie and Parker, suddenly froze. His eyes widened in shock.

Oh god. Eliot was shot. He was shot in the chest and how the hell could he survive that –

And then his jaw dropped as slowly, so slowly, Eliot managed to steady himself with his stick, and dear God in Heaven, he was getting to his feet and his hanging head was raised, and even through the cameras Hardison could see the annoyance on the hitter’s face. Annoyed. Eliot was goddamn friggin’ annoyed.

The clamour in his ear stopped dead, and he heard Parker’s deep, sobbing sigh of relief.

Hardison saw Nate take a step forward, and Sam and Joe began to hurry towards Eliot, but the hitter raised his hand, stopping all of them in their tracks.

Now Hardison knew what was going on.

“Soph,” he said, “Get ready. Any minute now.”

And with his thumping, terrified heart still in his mouth, he grinned.


“Seriously, man?” Eliot ground out, even as the to-the-bone pain arched through his chest and made him really, really want to lie down for a week or two and try not to breathe. He stared at Danny with derision. “A two-two?? I mean … seriously??

The spidey-armour had more than done its job, even though it had not really been designed to stop a bullet. Just ease the effect fists and baseball bats and metal bars had on Eliot’s torso. Hardison really was a genius, much as Eliot hated to admit it. His chest was taking some punishment, but he figured he could keep going for a few more minutes before his battered body gave out.

Danny gaped at him. The man had just been shot. He had seen the impact on the broad chest and he had heard the grunt of surprise and pain as the .22 bullet drove through him, so why-oh-why wasn’t the cripple lying bleeding to death on the floor, his lungs bubbling with blood and wondering what had just happened, even as the light of life went out of his eyes.

Danny looked at the man. He wore a simple shirt and undershirt with a denim jacket, and Danny could tell that he wasn’t wearing body armour, because it was bulky and heavy and there was no way the bastard could have taken out his men and moved so elegantly with thirty pounds of modular vest strapped to his torso.

There was no blood. There was a hole in the man’s clothing, but no damn blood. And the man was grinning at him. It reminded Danny of that figure he kept seeing, the shadowy man-thing with the limpid moon-glow eyes and the dark, feral smile.

Danny’s legs threatened to go out from under him, and he dropped the little Ruger he carried with him everywhere. It clattered onto the floor, unheeded.

This could not be happening.

Singa stood still, not too sure what was going on. He knew Spencer was hurt, but now he didn’t know how badly. And he had been wrong. So wrong. Eliot Spencer was no cripple. He may be injured and lame, but he was no pushover.

And stepping to one side, he readied himself.


Nate watched with disbelief and desperate hope as Eliot got to his feet, and, dammit, seemed not really any the worse for wear after being shot in the chest. It had been a kill shot, Nate knew, but there Eliot stood, obviously hurt but not dying, and Nate knew then he had to buy Hardison a whole case of gummy frogs and at least two new orc-battle-ish computer programme thingies for creating Eliot’s state-of-the-art body armour.

He saw Danny’s face, slack with horror as his ‘victim’ stood straight and apparently untouched after being fatally wounded, and he took a deep breath. This other man, this man Eliot called Singa, was now the most threatening force to the hitter. They needed a distraction to give Eliot a moment or two to ground himself.

“Hardison … Sophie … now,” he said softly.


Sophie and Parker, both of their faces tear-stained and shocked and relieved all at the same time, gave each other a hug and set to work, even as Lizzie lay asleep in her bed, oblivious to the life-and-death drama going on around her.

Parker wiped her snotty nose on her sleeve and knuckled tears from her eyes, but she knew she had to concentrate. She did exactly as Hardison had showed her and her slender fingers darted over the keyboard, setting up a series of screens which accompanied the modulator Hardison had created just for this one job.

“Ready,” she whispered, and Hardison’s voice echoed in her ear.

Ready this end – Soph, just do your thing and I’ll manage the directional mics from here. Let’s frighten the crap outta this little shit.

Sophie cleared her throat and adjusted the headphones and drop-down microphone she wore, even as she sniffled and tried to get her emotions under control. And then she realised she could make her terror and worry for Eliot work for her. Watching the events unfolding before her on the big plasma screen, she began to speak.


“You … you’re dead … you’re supposed to be dead …” Danny stammered, his legs shaky even as he took a step back away from the hitter.

“Life’s a bitch, huh,” Eliot said testily, and shifted his stance, his eyes now on Singa as the Malaysian slipped off his jacket and laid it neatly on one of Chet’s boxes. The suit was expensive, and he didn’t want to soil it with blood – Eliot’s, preferably.

But even the hitter started with surprise as a voice echoed around the huge derelict building.

“Danny … son … why are you doing this, baby boy?”

Mam. Mam was here.

Danny let out a sob of horror.

“Stop this, neach-gaoil *… this isn’t what I taught you, laddie …” his Mam said, sadness in every word.

The soft accent that sang of the distant Hebrides struck right to Danny’s black heart. His Mam was speaking to him … she was here in this place, her heart breaking because he could feel it in her voice, and he sank to his knees, his voice catching in his throat.

“Mam? Mam?? Where … how … I … why did you go away, Mam?” he shrieked. Danny’s heart was fragmenting, and he hated his father but here was his Mam and she would save him and make all of the horror go away and he would love her forever – “I need you Mam!!

And then the voice was behind him, and he twisted around, shuffling in the dust on the old floor and hoped against hope that he would see his Mam, but she wasn’t there and her voice was soft with regret and something else.

“Danny … my son … my soul … my shame …”

Oh godalmighty. Danny’s Mam was ashamed of him.

Danny McAllister Junior sat on the floor, covered his face with his hands and sobbed.


“Gotcha, you little, twisted sonofabitch!” Hardison spat as he electronically balanced the modulator that created Mam’s voice from his seat in Lucille.

His long days of work had paid off. Finding a file of home movies on Senior’s laptop had been a gift from the gods, Hardison thought, and he had wasted no time in adapting and editing little moments and sounds from Danny’s childhood into his plans to scare the crap out of Junior.

He had taken a chance that Danny hadn’t seen the films as Senior had the file encrypted, his own personal stash of memories of the one person in his life that he had ever loved. Hardison doubted he had even told his son they existed. And it had worked like a dream.

Sophie had spent days listening to Annie McAllister’s voice, learning the nuances of her distinctive accent and checking the gaelic pronunciation to perfection, and as Hardison saw Danny fall apart, he knew he had succeeded in his plan.

He turned his attention to Eliot, and knew then that his friend was ready.


Singa’s eyes darted about the warehouse, quickly taking in the startled faces around him and looking for answers. His sharp, knowing eyes spotted something high, high in the old rafters. He grinned. A small, almost invisible camera tucked in a crack between joints.

He turned and backhanded Danny across the face.

“You stupid …” he sneered.

Danny collapsed sideways and lay there, weeping.

Singa turned with the speed of a striking snake and set his feet apart, superbly balanced and graceful, young and deadly and unhurt.

Eliot looked at Nate who was crouched now beside the girl, trying to free her of the zip ties, and his friend glanced back at Eliot. He nodded. The girl would be okay.

Easing himself against the pain in his leg and chest, Eliot squinted in the bright light. He could barely see straight, and now he had to deal with this young bastard who had been one of Damien Moreau’s killing machines … much as he had been, many years ago. Now … now he was facing a younger, fitter, less damaged version of himself, but uninhibited by conscience or feelings.

“Oh, what the hell …” he sighed.

And he moved towards Singa.

But as he walked, his severe limp slowly seemed to fall away … he straightened and shrugged a crick out of his neck, and the wolf’s head stick lifted and twirled in deft fingers, and he walked, sound and steady and deadly and Eliot became once more the harbinger of pain that he had always been. He moved as silently as a wolf on the hunt.

Singa frowned.

Perhaps Spencer wasn’t as hurt as he appeared to be. Turning, he lifted the crowbar Morris had used to open the Infra-gun box.

“Oh man,” Eliot groaned, “not crowbars again. I hate friggin’ crowbars.”

And as he drew closer his stance altered, becoming more fluid, more guarded. Then he stopped and waited. Singa could come to him, he decided. He was too damn sore to be bothered walking any further and keeping up the pretence that he was fit and able was damn painful.

He stood and waited, and he fought the urge to wipe sweat from his eyes as Singa would take that as a sign of weakness.

Joe, standing beside Sam twenty feet from Eliot, leaned over to his friend, his face fraught with worry.

“Man, he’s gonna get himself killed!” he whispered.

Sam shook his head.

“Maybe … maybe not. I’ve seen him work, Joe. He’s good.”

Joe grimaced.

“I just hope to god he’s good enough,” he fretted.

“Me too, Joe … me too …” Sam muttered, and waited helplessly as Eliot braced himself for the fight of his life.


Singa had had enough of this nonsense. He just wanted to get this over and done with and then he would kill the rest of them and leave. And to this end, he took the fight to Eliot.

They crashed together like lions fighting over a kill, and the air shivered with the force of it.

Eliot went in low, his sturdy, stockier frame giving him more grounding. He was a lot more difficult to knock over, but Singa was slender and whipcord fit, and he was fresh to the fight. Eliot was already well below par, compromised as he was by a bullet wound – however minor - and with his battered leg and back already weakened.

But he still managed to get in the first blow. The ebony stick cracked like a whip against Singa’s thigh and the younger man let out a surprised yelp, even as he powered a fist into Eliot’s side. The pain made Eliot wheeze, even through the spidey-armour, but he managed to take a step sideways and reverse the stick, swinging it backwards and balancing it along his forearm as Singa brought down the crowbar with a vengeance.

How the stick didn’t break was a mystery, but it held, and Eliot, although staggered by the force of the blow, kept his balance and brought the stick down so he could use it for a moment to balance himself. His fist connected with Singa’s cheekbone, and for the first time the Malaysian realised he was possibly fighting a man as deadly as himself. Blood spilled down his cheek, and he wiped it away with the back of his free hand.

Eliot eased back, balanced and ready, and he grinned.

Now Singa was mad … which was exactly where Eliot wanted him to be. Singa was arrogant, and he was confident. The two did not go well together, and Eliot was absolutely counting on it.

Singa snarled, and made the mistake Eliot was waiting for. He telegraphed his next move … a quick double blow to the chest and then a blow to the head, crushing Eliot’s skull with the crowbar.

There was the tell-tale swing back of Singa’s left hand with the right extended, crowbar balanced at shoulder height, and the Malaysian pulled back his lips in a grin of malice.

“What’re you waitin’ for?” Eliot taunted, managing to stand square on both of his feet and bringing the stick over his head with both hands, as though he was a samurai poised to strike.

The following flurry of blows was brutal. Both men were lightning-fast, and Eliot easily parried the first anticipated set of blows. But Singa was strong and other than a single cut to his cheek, was unhurt.

Eliot was slowly driven back, his defence strong and true, his experience helping him through the worst of it as Singa lost his temper and became predictable. But Eliot couldn’t keep up the pace for any longer. His wounded body could not cope with the onslaught of the younger man, and suddenly the crowbar connected with Eliot’s bad leg and the hitter was driven to his knee, a grunt of pure agony coming from his battered chest.

Singa crowed with triumph. He decided to prolong the pain for this wreck of a man, and took a couple of steps back, twirling the crowbar.

Nate, smoothing dirty hair back from the girl’s forehead and pleased to see she was showing signs of responding, suddenly had his heart in his mouth as he watched the battle unfolding before him.

Hardison, he whispered, make the call. NOW.

Gotcha Nate, Hardison replied, his voice quiet but riven with panic as he watched the fight progress as he sat uselessly in Lucille.

But Eliot wouldn’t stay down.

Much to Singa’s fury, Eliot used the few moments of Singa’s arrogant posturing and evened his breathing, and ignoring the deep, bruising pain in his leg, got once again to his feet.

Singa was beyond anger.

“Why don’t you just stay down and let me kill you??” he hissed, not understanding how this beaten man was still able to stand. Eliot had sustained a deep nick in his eyebrow and blood now tricked down over his left eye, and he wiped it away, leaving a smear of red that looked like warpaint.

“Because I’m better than you’ll ever be,” Eliot jibed, his grin now rife with disdain.

With a roar, Singa charged.

But Eliot was ready for him. They fought and punched and sweated, Eliot’s face twisted into a feral snarl, and Singa did everything he could to cripple the hitter, but Eliot was a force of nature. But no matter how well he fought, he was slowly but surely driven backwards, one painful step at a time, until he was slammed into one of the pillars holding up the old roof of the warehouse. Singa cried out his victory. He grasped the crowbar tightly and brought it over his head as he pushed his left forearm against Eliot’s throat, choking him.

Eliot, unable to breathe and with the black spots of encroaching unconsciousness prickling around his vision, knew then he finally had the Malaysian in the vulnerable position he had been waiting for. Shifting the wolf’s head in his grip until he grasped the shaft, he slammed the heavy handle into Singa’s crotch.

The Malaysian howled his agony, staggering back and clutching his groin even as Eliot sagged against the pillar, head hanging and drawing in whooping breaths with aching lungs. His chest was on fire, and his leg and back were on the point of giving out, but he knew he had to finish this.

Singa, tears streaming down his face, stumbled to one knee and dropped the crowbar. He waited for the following onslaught from this crazy, un-killable man he had thought a cripple … but it didn’t come. Looking up and peering through teary eyes, he realised Eliot was in no fit state to attack him. The man was keeping himself upright by sheer will-power alone, and Singa knew he had to fight through the pain and end this charade.

Lifting the crowbar once more, he slid a slender knife from its sheath in his Italian leather boot and managed to stand up, a little hunched, but able to fight.

Eliot raised his head. Damn the man, he thought as he watched Singa, now armed with a crowbar and a knife, stride towards him, although it was obvious he was hurting badly.

Eliot sighed. He was tired, and he was hurt, and he desperately wanted to just collapse on the floor and pass out, but he knew this had to end.

Lifting the wolf’s head stick, he held the handle in his right hand and grasped the shaft with his left, and then he made a subtle twisting movement.

The stick broke apart. The shaft fell away to reveal twenty-six inches of tempered Passau steel, a glittering blade with razor-sharp edges, and pushing his damaged body away from the pillar, Eliot braced himself.

Huh, thought Nate with astonishment. Never knew it could do that.

The two protagonists crashed into one another, and for long moments Nate held his breath as he tried to make out which of these two madmen was going to make it out of this alive, but then … Eliot began to push Singa backwards, faster and faster and the Malaysian screamed with agony as he was pinned against one of Morris’s crates, the sword blade through his left shoulder to the hilt.

Eliot gave one final, hard shove and stepped back unsteadily, even as Singa dropped the crowbar and the knife, and the hitter roughly pulled the old blade from Singa’s flesh.

The Malaysian shrieked as he collapsed on the crate, and then Joe and Sam were there, grappling the lean killer to the ground and pulling out handcuffs to shackle the murderous creature to a pillar.

Eliot wove his way over to Danny McAllister Junior, who looked up at this bloodied man who had brought down his dreams and ruined his life. Eliot hefted the swordstick and placed the point on Danny’s chest.

“Don’t … please …” Danny was pleading for his life. His Mam was no longer here because she was ashamed of him, and his Daddy hated him just as much as Danny loathed his father, and he was going to die now, he was sure …

“Not goin’ to kill you,” Eliot grated, shifting his weight as he tried to stay standing, but it was getting more difficult by the minute. “You were sellin’ these pieces of shit to ISIL,” he said. “That makes you a terrorist an’ a traitor. I tell you, man … you’re never goin’ to see the light of day again when you get to Gitmo.”

Danny stared at Eliot, and then his bladder failed him and he urinated. A wail of self-pity crept from this destroyed wreck of a man who had lost absolutely everything.

Eliot’s face creased with disgust.

Lifting the blade from Danny’s chest he turned away to walk towards Nate, but his steps faltered, and he dropped the swordstick on the floor as his body finally gave in to the damage.

Nate caught Eliot before he fell.

Lowering his friend to the floor, he held Eliot as tightly as he could without hurting him any more than he already was.

“You are some crazy asshole, you know that?” he whispered.

Eliot snorted and winced, a wry smile on his battered face, his chest heaving agonisingly as he tried to catch his breath.

“Bein’ crazy … part of the job description, man,” he rasped.

Nate, ignoring the clamour of frightened-but-relieved voices coming from his earbud, grinned.

“Listen … are you going to be alright for a minute or two? Joe, Sam and I have a little chore to do and we only have a short time to do it,” he said cryptically.

Eliot closed his eyes.

“Sure. Prop me up someplace an’ I’ll be fine,” he replied wearily.

It was over. He had won, and he had saved the girl, and his family had saved him. It felt … comfy … because now he knew in his heart that he could protect his team and his ‘Lizbeth Grace with no more worries about whether he was fit enough to do so.

Nate wasted no time in easing Eliot over to a spare pillar and propping his friend against it as carefully as he could. Fishing in his pocket, he pulled out an earbud and gently inserted it into Eliot’s ear.

“Here,” he said. “You have some explaining to do.”

Eliot, suddenly deafened by a babble of three voices, all berating him and making dire threats against his sorry carcass, rested his head back onto the pillar and listened. The love in those voices made his smile widen with pleasure.

Straightening, Nate watched as Joe and Sam finished dealing with a bleeding, protesting Singa. Lifting the crowbar, he nodded at the two ex-servicemen.

“You ready?”

Sam and Joe nodded, and they set to work.

It took a whole fifteen minutes to completely destroy all five of the Infra-guns. They were smashed beyond repair, unable to ever again threaten any human being with a silent, painful death.

Nate was just pulverising the last of the backpacks when the door to the warehouse suddenly burst open, and with his big voice booming orders, Colonel Mike Vance and his counter-terrorism squad flooded the building.

 

To be continued …


Author’s Notes:

‘Singa’ means ‘lion’ in Malay.

* neach-gaoil – Scots-gaelic for ‘sweetheart’.

Chapter Text


“Jesus, Spencer … you look like shit,” Vance said, looking down at Eliot and wincing at the bloody face and beaten body.

Eliot squinted up at him, blood still trickling from the cut above his eye, and gave the big man a sneer.

“Yeah … nice to see you too, Mike,” he sniped, grimacing.

Nate appeared beside Vance as he watched the man’s team quickly and efficiently take control of the situation, man-handling the criminal element out of the building, Singa screaming that he was dying and that he needed medical treatment. An aromatic Danny McAllister Junior was escorted outside to a military vehicle, two members of Vance’s team arguing about whether they should let him sit on the seat without plastic between him and the leather covering.

“Did you get Senior?” he asked, eyeing Vance.

“Ten minutes ago. He’s not happy.”

Nate grinned.

“Don’t worry – you’ll have all the evidence you’ll need to put him and the whole bunch of them away for quite a while, if not for life.”

“And here it is,” Hardison said as he made his way through the warehouse doorway and handed Vance a memory stick. “All major paper trails, conversations, texts, schematics, receipts … you name it, you got it.”

Vance stared at the memory stick and then turned his gaze on Hardison. But the hacker was ignoring him. He was crouching down beside Eliot and gently wiping blood from his best friend’s face with some gauze he had obviously taken from Lucille’s medikit.

“You okay, bro?” he asked, concerned.

Eliot winced as Hardison pressed on the cut on his brow, trying to stem the bleeding, but nevertheless he managed a tired grin.

“No … but I will be. Just need to rest up … sleep for a month, maybe …”

“Yeah … well, I think we should call Doc an’ –“

“Nah. I’ll be fine.” Eliot was quietly dismissive. “Thanks for the armour, Hardison. Saved my life,” he added softly.

Hardison almost broke at that one.

“Of all the dumb, stupid, stupid things to do, El … if Junior had used a thirty-eight I’d be decidin’ where to bury your sorry ass.”

“Hey! I didn’t know the moron was gonna shoot me!” Eliot growled weakly but indignantly.

“Well, looks like I’m gonna have to work on the bullet-proofin’ thing, huh, if you’re gonna get shot at more often,” Hardison grouched.

“Hardison …” Eliot breathed, his voice shaky now.

“Yeah?”

“Take me home, will ya? Need to go home.”

Hardison wiped his suspiciously damp eyes and nodded, smiling.

“Okay, man. As soon as we can.”

Vance turned his gaze back to Nate. “Still think you guys should come work for me. I’ll make the same offer to you two,” Vance added as Sam and Joe wandered up to find out what was going on.

Sam shook his head.

“No thanks. Already got 25 years of service under my belt. I did this just for the hell of it.” And to help a friend, he added silently.

“Ain’t had so much fun since I left the Marines,” Joe added, giving Vance a toothy grin.

Vance was curious.

“What the hell do you two do anyway??”

“Us?” Sam said innocently.

“Oh …” Joe said. “We’re cooks.”

Vance’s eyebrows hit his hairline.

“Cooks?? You’re kiddin’ me.”

“Damn good ones at that,” Eliot grouched. “Although I’m probably never gonna hear the last of this, I reckon.”

Sam and Joe just sniggered.

Vance shook his head. Every time he got involved with this bunch of lunatics, things just got weird. Giving up on Sam and Joe he scowled at the smashed Infra-guns.

“Oh man, why’d you have to take ‘em apart like that?” he complained.

Nate couldn’t suppress a look of smug satisfaction.

“We didn’t think anyone should have these things, Vance. Them or us.”

Vance shook his head doggedly.

“You know we’ll use the schematics an’ retro-fit ‘em,” he said waspishly.

Nate shrugged.

“Not my problem,” he said. “Oh, and the girl. She’s a runaway, Vance. Make sure she gets home safe and sound and that she gets whatever support she needs.”

Vance agreed.

“No question of that, man.” He watched as the girl, now a little steadier on her feet, was tended to by an army medic. “She’ll be looked after, I promise.”

Nate rubbed his hands together. They were done. He turned to Eliot, still being fussed over by Hardison.

“Ready to go, Eliot?”

Eliot sighed.

“Oh god, yeah,” he replied, weariness in every syllable. “Hey Mike?”

Vance, already planning how he would tidy up this mess in the warehouse, looked at his old comrade.

“Yeah?”

“Say hi to Marie an’ the kids for me, will ya?”

“Will do. And why don’t you and your freaky little team come over for Thanksgiving? You can make that pecan pie Marie likes so much.”

Eliot grinned and waved a hand dismissively at the big soldier.

“You got it.”

Vance gave back a cocky grin, pleased as punch. He flicked an informal salute and then was gone, back into his world of covert ops and the eternal hunt for terrorists.

And it was at that moment Eliot knew the whole thing was over.


Nate and Hardison took Eliot home.

He lay on the sofa bed in Lucille, hurting and bruised and just about out on his feet, and was content.

He listened to Hardison babbling on about how he had driven Danny McAllister to madness by accessing his Porsche’s on-board computers and played around with street lighting, and even managed to get Johnny Mathis singing out of an unplugged digital radio simply by hacking the frequency.

Eliot just lay back and drowsed, happy to let the hacker blather on and on about still-connected CCTV systems and getting Parker to scatter foam bits in the air vents of Danny’s apartment to make creepy-mouse noises in the walls. Even Nate had been involved, Hardison using a photograph from Sophie’s cell phone of Nate wearing his favourite fedora when they had visited Rome the previous month. Hardison was a fiend with photoshop.

Eliot had to admit the man was inventive, and, he realised, Hardison had done it because McAllister had come frighteningly close to killing the nearest thing the hacker had to a big brother. That knowledge almost gave Eliot a nasty case of the warm-and-fuzzies, but he tamped it down firmly. He’d cook the fool something nice instead.

And so he let them take care of him, with Hardison checking the hitter’s wounds even as he yammered on about how it would take Vance and his people fifteen years to figure out what he had done to the Infra-gun schematics so that the things would never work.

When they reached HQ Nate and Hardison gingerly helped him out of Lucille, Sam and Joe there to help before heading back downstairs to give young Mikey a hand with late dinners, and Eliot was carefully assisted inside by his family.

And then everything became maudlin and disgustingly pathetic, and Eliot was fussed-over and coddled, dammit, which he hated with a vengeance, or so he told himself.

Parker, now in full-blown medical mode, patched him up. She scolded and poked and then stitched the cut in his brow, and almost wept at the enormous bruise surrounding the shallow gouge taken out of his chest muscle where the bullet had almost penetrated the spidey-armour.

Then she scolded him again for good measure, and then shouted at Nate and Hardison for not being gentle enough when they helped Eliot get into his sweats and put him to bed. After all that, Parker had a good cry, poked Eliot again, and said she was going to get him something to eat. Then she stalked out of the room and left Eliot to his own devices.

Supper that night was a quiet affair. Soup from the freezer reheated and accompanied by good bread, and then quiet conversation in Eliot’s room, and the team settled back into what – for them – amounted to normality. They were back together, and they needed to be with their errant hitter, if only to make sure he was settled and healing.

Eliot managed a little food and half a glass of water, but sleep beckoned. Parker had him propped up by a veritable mountain of pillows with one under his knee to help take the ache out of his bad leg. He was warm, and the heat pads Parker had dotted about his bruised frame made him dozy, despite the pain.

One by one the rest of the team filed out, and Sophie, going to check on Lizzie, switched the light off as she left the room, leaving Eliot sleeping the sleep of the righteous.


Hardison couldn’t sleep. He was exhausted, but the events of the evening wouldn’t let him rest. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Eliot punched backwards by the force of the bullet, and he felt again the horror of the sudden knowledge that Eliot was dead. He took a deep breath and turned over for the umpteenth time, trying to settle himself.

But then he heard the sound of a television playing … a football game, he thought. He looked at his alarm clock. Just after one in the morning. Yawning, he decided to get up and make himself a hot chocolate. Maybe that would help.

Wandering along the corridor towards the kitchen area, he noticed Eliot’s door was ajar. That in itself wasn’t unusual when Eliot was sick or hurt, as the team needed to keep an eye on him as he had a habit of shutting them out and trying to take care of himself … or even disappear if he could. There was the glow of light from a bedside lamp, and the sound of the football game came faintly from within.

Hardison peered around the door.

“Hey, man … you okay? Do you need anythin’?”

Eliot looked wan and a little sick, but he gave Hardison a pained shrug.

“Nope. Woke up an’ couldn’t get back to sleep. Thought I’d catch the re-run of the game.” He tried sighing but it hurt too much to inhale deeply, so he coughed instead. “Looks like I missed most of it, though.”

Hardison thought for a moment.

“Goin’ to make some hot chocolate. Want some?”

Eliot nodded. The sweetness and the heat would feel good, he thought. He had taught Hardison the Eliot Special Hot Chocolate method with a hint of vanilla and spices, and the hacker had been – for once – an excellent pupil. No lasers this time.

“Yeah, sounds great.” He shifted, wincing.

Hardison flinched in sympathy.

“Oooh, hot chocolate???”

Parker’s voice sounded at Hardison’s shoulder as the little thief pushed past him, comforter and Bunny in tow, and flung herself onto Eliot’s big bed, letting out a noisy yawn.

Dammit, Parker!” Eliot hissed, his wounds jarring. “This ain’t a pyjama party, y’know!”

“Can’t sleep,” Parker mumbled. She reached over and lifted the lid of the ottoman at the foot of the bed and hauled out a couple of pillows, and then dug in for the night. “What’re we watching?”

Eliot bristled feebly.

We ain’t watchin’ anything! I was watchin’ the game!” he complained.

Parker gently wrestled the remote control out of Eliot’s sore hand and then, almost as a second thought, leaned forward and put her hand against Eliot’s forehead, careful of his cut brow.

“Hmmm …” she pondered even as Eliot tried without success to bat her hand away. “A little warm,” she said to herself. “No fever though.” She eyed Eliot, who scowled back. “You’re prone to fevers. That’s because you’re an idiot when you’re sick,” she added. “Hardison, we need popcorn!” she pronounced, changing tack in the blink of an eye.

Eliot blinked.

“What? Why?”

Parker sighed.

“You have to have popcorn when you watch movies,” she explained as though Eliot was a five-year-old. “Duh!”

“Comin’ up, babe!” Hardison grinned. “Check out Netflix. My movies. You’ll find somethin’ we can all watch on there.”

Eliot groaned helplessly even as Parker settled herself beside him, comforter, Bunny, remote and all, and brought up Hardison’s Netflix account and began scrolling through the hacker’s movie choices.

He had no idea why they did this. They invaded his body space, then invaded his goddamn room when he was hurt, stitched him up, yelled at him when all he was trying to do was the right thing, when all he wanted was –

Huh.

Eliot suddenly realised that what he wanted more than anything was their acceptance and their love. And all of this caring nonsense was part of the whole package. Well … he supposed he could cope.

His ponderings were interrupted by a little voice coming from the corridor piping ‘BOFF!’ very loudly.

Aww hell.

“Make that five hot chocolates, please, Hardison, and some juice for Lizzie.” Sophie said.

Hardison’s grin was all pleasure.

“Anyone want anythin’ else? Cookies maybe? We still got some of Eliot’s double-choc-chip in the refrigerator.”

“Marshmallows,” Nate grunted, squinting in the light as he wandered into Eliot’s bedroom and slumped down on the big couch Eliot sometimes used for naps during jobs. “Need marshmallows,” he continued as he pulled a throw rug off the back of the couch and draped it over his pyjama’d body.

Sophie wafted in, all silk dressing gown and pyjamas, carrying Lizzie who reached out for Eliot. She hadn’t seen him all day and she had missed him.

Parker took her and had a quiet word with her god-daughter before tucking her in beside Eliot, who looked sore and very tired, but secretly had thought he might never see his best girl ever again. He had missed her desperately.

“Lizzie … you have to be gentle, okay?”

Lizzie listened to Parker very carefully. She knew Parker took care of Eliot when he was being dumb, and Lizzie liked to help, so she gazed at Parker, taking in every word.

“He’s hurt, Lizzie, so you can’t hug him too much, alright? And no patting his chest ‘cause he has a big sore bit there, and his head’s hurt too, although to be honest there isn’t much in there to hurt,” Parker added, just a tad irritated. “You just make sure he doesn’t move around too much and gets some rest. You’re good at that.”

Lizzie grinned at that one, and then shuffled on her bottom over to Eliot, who felt a bit insulted. But he held out his arms and Lizzie curled into them, touching his arm gently and burrowing her face into the side of his chest, which didn’t hurt Eliot too much.

Fifteen minutes later Hardison and Sophie brought hot chocolate, apple juice for Lizzie and an assortment of snacks, as well as a newly-heated set of pads for Eliot’s bumps and bruises.

Eliot relaxed back into the pillows and the blissful heat of the pads at his chest and back, and idly pondered his situation. Here he was, safely ensconced in the warmth and comfort of his friends and with the little girl who unknowingly ruled his life, and he realised he had spoken from the heart when he had asked Hardison to take him home. And he was home. He was where he belonged. And it felt … right.

Yes!!” Parker hissed and disrupted the strange feelings of belonging playing hell with Eliot’s being. “The Princess Bride!!” she added triumphantly as she found the movie she wanted.

Well, thought Eliot, at least it isn’t friggin’ Star Wars.

Lizzie, sippy-cup and a cookie in hand, wriggled with delight. She loved The Princess Bride.

And so, with Eliot moaning about crumbs in his bed and his family sprawling around him wrapped up in comforters and throw rugs, they settled down.

The Princess Bride, for Team Leverage Plus One, was an interactive movie. There was a lot of shouting of lines. Things about being unemployed in Greenland and how one should never trust a man in a mask, and Hardison pointed at Eliot and yelled ‘You are the brute squad!’ which earned the hacker a snarling threat of dismemberment from the somewhat bruised hitter. Lizzie held her breath with anticipation as Westley fought the Rodents of Unusual Size in the Dreaded Fire Swamp, and screamed with delight as Inigo fought the Six-Fingered Man, and the whole team – including Eliot, who was secretly a bit of a fan – joined in with ‘My name is Inigo Montoya … you killed my father … prepare to die!’

Lizzie was so thrilled she sprayed cookie crumbs all over Eliot’s comforter as she yelled at the swordsman who would become the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Parker was of the opinion that Eliot would make an excellent Dread Pirate Roberts, which Eliot didn’t dispute.

And as the good guys rode away at the end on white horses, Lizzie bounced up and down, pointing at the horses and ‘boff-ing’ madly.

Eliot quietly decided that in a few years’ time the team would head to Oklahoma to see Eliot’s uncle who bred Welsh ponies, and Eliot would pick out a gentle, steady pony for Lizzie and he would teach her how to ride.

As the credits rolled, everyone sighed happily and relaxed back into their respective cushions while Parker thought about their next movie. No-one was tired, and the relief at being together again and Eliot finally resting and quietly healing was in them all.

But Lizzie had something on her mind.

Twisting around to Eliot, she sat up on her knees and studied him with big, searching brown eyes. Her little hands patted his side very gently, and she looked at the stitched cut in his eyebrow and spotted the edge of the huge bruise now creeping up to his collarbone and visible at the collar of his loose teeshirt.

She began to talk. And she had a lot to say. There were lots of ‘boffs’ and, for the very first time, some ‘El’s in-between a whole jumble of ‘nearly-words’ as Parker called them. She babbled and frowned and patted, and Eliot gazed steadily at his best girl and listened very carefully. And she went on, and on and on.

When she stopped for a moment to catch her breath, Eliot tried to get a word in edgeways.

“Oh, c’mon, ‘Lizbeth Grace, it wasn’t that bad –“ he muttered, irritated.

But off she went again, and the other members of Team Leverage suddenly understood that Lizzie was giving Eliot Spencer the talking-to of his life. Smiles began to appear, and Eliot became more and more frowny and grumpy, but he also began to look a little whupped, Hardison thought. Oh, how the mighty had fallen. Eliot Spencer, ass-whupped by an eleven-month-old.

But eventually Lizzie ran out of steam, and the string of jumbled sounds slowly petered out, and she huffed to herself. And then she kissed Eliot on the nose and waited for a reply.

Eliot blinked, looked around at his team and then back at Lizzie, and gathering his arms around his best girl, he gave her his answer.

“As you wish,” he said.

 

Finis


Author's note: Many, many thanks to everyone who has read, given kudos or left comments on this little tale of mayhem and nonsense. It has been such a pleasure to write for you all. The next story is coming soon.