It wasn’t that Hardison didn’t know about the sword. You live with someone for seven years, living the life they led, and certain things just became known. Like how Parker could sprawl across the width of a king-size bed like an octopus and completely not move unless someone kissed her, and then you had to be seriously careful because she could knock you out flat (thanks a fuck, Eliot, for teaching her that). Or how Eliot was never comfortable in the middle unless they were fucking and even sometimes not then. Or how both Eliot and Parker needed their own spaces, even if they rarely lived there. Parker’s was a warehouse on the edge of the industrial district, with a fridge, a microwave, a teeny bathroom barely big enough to fit her, and a massive brass framed, top-of-the-line bed dressed in white linen and lace; Eliot had a top-floor condo with a chef’s kitchen that had barely any furniture but a well-stocked pantry and freezer. Not that Hardison had either of them wired for security reasons and memorized the floor plans or anything like that, but it was only fair that he made sure they were safe, because they were his team.
So Eliot had a sword. After seven years of learning to rely on the hitter’s ability to identify and disarm his opponents, Hardison figured it was just yet another one of Eliot’s quirks. It wasn’t as though Hardison looked it up or anything (Norman style broadsword, leather wrapped handle, double-edged 1055 carbon steel blade, with wear that indicated it wasn’t some recent make). Hardison had learned when it came to weapons, Eliot had his reasons for having them around – or not having them. Eliot didn’t have a gun, but he kept Parker’s and Hardison’s oiled and maintained, and he made sure Hardison didn’t neglect his knives, either. Hardison figured between them, they were set for weaponry, and the sword was just cool. Plus, it made a nice companion to the katana Eliot already had, and Parker had pointed out once that the katana was lonely. It wasn't unlikely that Parker had acquired it for Eliot under that justification, so Hardison just accepted the broadsword as yet another Eliot thing.
As part of his protection for his team (lovers, but nobody had said those words and they were just having fun, especially since they’d only been a trio in bed for the last eight months), Hardison had set up web crawlers to alert him when someone was looking for Eliot, Parker, himself, Nate, Sophie, or Tara (okay, so Tara was lower on the priority list, but he still figured he owed her). It wasn’t surprising to wake up and see that someone was looking for any of them; the search query automatically sifted the priority of the alert from “wanted by Interpol” to “someone wants to hire” to “someone wants to kill.” What cropped up one rainy January morning was nothing the query knew how to handle. Hardison sat on the couch in the living room of their apartment, which had been Nate’s before he and Sophie moved out. It was almost noon; the thundering rain had woken Hardison, and he’d stayed up late playing games, since Eliot wanted to treat Parker to dinner. (They were carefully not calling it a ‘proper date’, but Hardison knew it was one, no matter if they called it ‘an exercise in high-class food.’) The fact that both Eliot and Parker had given Hardison the time to play without distractions was an oblique apology for making him spend three tournament weekends in a row working on their most recent target – something he appreciated.
Now, however, Alec Hardison had a genuine problem. The video was recent; the timestamp on the security footage indicated it had been about a month after Nate and Sophie had sailed off into the sunset (literally: they’d gotten married and sailed out of Portland, supposedly to the Bahamas but Eliot was sure they were headed elsewhere). That meant that Eliot had been in Paris in March, which would’ve explained why Eliot had been tired and snappish when they’d gone to visit their second client as a trio. It didn’t quite explain why Eliot had chosen to decapitate the man in the video, or why the video had emerged now, nearly a year later. The video had cut out just after the head had been severed. It had been tagged with “cool security footage – movie in real life???” on a social media site. The only redeeming quality was that it was being denounced as fake, staged, and the original poster was being called an attention-seeking glory hound, among less flattering posts. The problem for Hardison was that he knew Eliot Spencer’s moves. Knew what he looked like naked, knew what he preferred to wear when he hunted. Hardison had even watched Eliot move through that particular sequence of moves, with that sword, in the early morning light, on the floor above their apartment, which they’d turned into a martial arts studio so Parker wouldn’t randomly hang from the ceiling and break things and Eliot could show them how to move better so they weren’t so stiff. Hardison hadn’t meant to spy on Eliot that morning, but he’d woken up cold and alone, and he’d gone looking for company.
He’d found, instead, Eliot, in jeans and nothing else, working through a sequence of moves that looked like he was fighting with someone. To Alec, who’d grown up on Star Wars, it was better than seeing Jedi fight. He’d waited for Eliot to finish before speaking, in awe. Eliot had shot him an odd look, but that morning, Alec had kissed him for the first time. He’d been surprised and shocked when Eliot had looked at him, then kissed him back. Remembering that – and how Parker had chosen that moment to walk in (“Oh, you weren’t already fucking each other?” had been her comment) – made Hardison sigh and stare at the video. First order of business: get rid of the video and make sure it stayed gone. Easier said than done on the Internet, but he was Alec Hardison, a god of hackers. Second, talk to Eliot. Third, freak the fuck out. Or maybe do that first, he thought. Then do everything else, because Eliot would calm him down and tell him he’d freaked out for no good reason, but at least…at least he’d have it out of the way.
Eliot Spencer prided himself on a lack of pretense. He’d been a soldier, a mercenary, and he hit people for a living. At this point in his life, he had more than enough money to retire and live comfortably – but he knew, as Nate had known, that doing nothing would drive him to insanity. Having a team he could trust to cover his back had gone a long, long way to keeping his sanity and tempered his guilt over the things he’d done to stay alive. Having lovers who understood what it meant to have issues – Parker was her own tangled mess of Things That Shouldn’t Have Happened – cemented Eliot’s sense of what was true and what wasn’t.
The problem with that was that, because Parker and Hardison didn’t want him asking about things they didn’t want him to know, they respected his right to privacy in big ways. He’d known for a while it would come back to bite him. He’d done his best to mitigate it when and where he could. He knew, of course, he couldn’t control everything.
So when Hardison came zooming downstairs like a heat-seeking missile, demanding they talk in the back room, then showing Eliot a video that shouldn’t have existed in the first place…Eliot cursed Fate.
“Look, it’s complicated,” Eliot said.
“So uncomplicate it,” Hardison shot back, leaning up against the marble-topped U-shaped bar in front of the video screen.
Eliot took a deep breath and said, “I can’t.”
“Which means you could, but you won’t,” Hardison summarized, frustrated. “Look, I got the memo that you have stuff you’re not willing to talk about. I only care about what this means for us – we’re supposed to be taking a break, remember, not inviting trouble?”
Eliot glared at Hardison. “Don’t blame me for this. I didn’t ask for it, and the person who had the footage in the first place is an ex-cop. Which means that either he’s dead or someone stole it from him or both.”
That made Hardison pause. “You’re that certain about it?”
Eliot half-smiled, and thought of Nick Wolfe. The ex-cop ran security on his bar as if he was a man under siege, and the analogy wasn’t that far off. “Yeah. He can be impulsive, but he’s not stupid, and if he was careless with his security, he’d be dead. Too many people would love to see him lose what he has.”
Hardison sighed. “Don’t tell me, he’s one of your friends from that classified place you don’t tell me about and I’m not supposed to ask. So this is me, not asking. Look, I’ve already scrubbed the video off the ‘net – this is just a local copy and I’ll delete it when we’re done here – but you know how stuff like that can get out. I just need to know if we’re on fire or I just need to stand by with a fire hose.”
Eliot looked at the hacker. “I’ll make a few calls, but I can’t promise anything.”
“What do you want to tell Parker?”
“Nothing yet,” Eliot replied. “I’ll know more as soon as I make those calls.”
Hardison raised an eyebrow significantly, crossed his arms, and waited for Eliot to pull out his phone. “I’ll wait.”
Glaring at the hacker to remind him that he wasn’t someone who liked being backed into a corner, Eliot nonetheless took his phone out of his pocket.
Mentally, he did the time zone conversions, and sighed. It was nearly midnight in Paris. He dialed Marcus first, aware that Nick would be up due to the bar, but needing the more levelheaded Roman’s input.
“I was beginning to think you’d deliberately lost this number,” Marcus greeted, sounding tired but awake.
“It was under consideration,” Eliot told him.
Marcus laughed. “Since that’s the case, Eliot, it means you’re not calling to be social. What can I do for you?”
“First, is our mutual friend with a bar still alive?”
“Much to the eternal disappointment of those who assume he’s weak and afraid to fight,” Marcus said, sounding amused. “Did someone hire you to take him out?”
“I wouldn’t take that job,” Eliot replied instantly. “No, some video appeared on the Internet from the night I helped you out. I was just checking to see if I could narrow down the source.”
Marcus cursed. “My apologies, Eliot. We thought we dealt with that problem here, but clearly we didn’t do enough. Do you need backup?”
Eliot hesitated. He wasn’t immortal…yet. He preferred to keep it that way for as long as possible, though he knew the clock was ticking on what Marcus called the “optimum age.” “Might not be a bad idea,” he conceded. “I’m in Portland, Oregon right now.”
Marcus considered a moment. “There are a few I can call who are in the area but I doubt you'd trust anyone you haven’t met. I can be there in two days. Can you find holy ground and stay there?”
“I took a chapter out of Nick’s book.”
Marcus laughed. “Consecrated a bar, hmm? Not a bad strategy. Just remember that not all of us respect or know it.”
“Beating a dead horse, Marcus. Email me the details of your flight and I’ll be there to pick you up.”
Eliot gave him the Leverage Consulting address Hardison had set up for him. “And Marcus?”
“How did the video get out?”
Marcus sighed. “I recommended the wrong person for a job at Sanctuary. Some people see gifts as opportunities to take more than they should.”
“I presume any further opportunities are permanently closed to this person.”
“Nick’s patience for thieves runs only so far; this person crossed that line. We’ll discuss the ramifications in person, Eliot. If something comes up, call me when you can. Stay safe.” Marcus disconnected the line.
Hardison looked at Eliot. “Was that you calling the fire department?”
Eliot let out a breath. “Yeah.”
“Thought you preferred to handle things yourself.”
“Handling this one myself could get me killed, and not in a way I’d like.”
“The fact you even have a list of ways you’d prefer to be killed scares me,” Hardison noted, holding up a hand as if to stop Eliot from listing them. “That said – do we still need to worry about anything?”
Eliot nodded. “Whoever posted the video did it deliberately; that makes me a target.”
“And you won’t run – not now,” Hardison concluded.
“You and Parker would still be in the line of fire, and the hunters would just wait us all out. They have time on their side.”
“Dare I ask who you pissed off?”
“Marcus refused to tell me everything on the phone, so it’ll have to wait until he gets here. Probably a good thing if we all stayed here for the next few days, kept close track of each other. Where’s Parker?”
“She said she was getting more climbing gear from REI and that she wanted to get more clothes from her place. She should be back anytime now.”
As if on cue, Parker walked in from the back door, a duffle bag slung over her shoulder. She sized up the two men in an instant. “Problem? Who’s the client?”
“No client,” Eliot told her. “Just spillover from something I did about a year back, after Sophie and Nate left on their honeymoon and we did our annual walkabout.”
Parker nodded. It had become tradition to split up after a year of cases, to go back to being just themselves instead of Leverage Consulting, Inc., and the unspoken agreement was that whatever they did in those two or three months was something that wasn’t discussed until it became necessary. “What do you need me to do?”
“At the moment, nothing,” Eliot said. “Just stay close and keep an eye peeled for anyone acting strange.” At Parker’s look, Eliot elaborated, “My definition of strange, not yours.”
“Okay,” Parker said readily. Setting the duffel bag down, she stepped over to Eliot, hugged him, and then kissed him. “It’ll be okay. We always find a way.”
Hardison hugged them both, then kissed each in turn. “So, if we’re done freaking out, do you want to make out or are you needed back in the kitchen, Eliot?”
Eliot smiled. “You two go ahead. I have work to do. Save me some energy for later.” Without looking back, he stepped through the back room door to the brewpub.
“It was my alley,” Nick Wolfe argued in Sanctuary’s second-floor office twenty minutes later. “My security tape that got stolen. So why aren’t you taking me as backup, again?”
Marcus sighed impatiently. “Because Ceirdwyn is a better tactical choice, Nick. I know you feel honor-bound to do something, and I know Eliot trusts you, but I’d rather you stayed put in case the hounds come circling back. Surely you trust your teacher to guard my back?”
Nick met the old Roman’s eyes squarely. “Then you’d better be prepared for Eliot to have backup as well.”
Marcus smiled. “He wouldn't be the man I met if he didn’t have people he trusted,” Marcus noted. “Besides, didn’t you say something about needing to stay in Paris so Interpol didn’t issue an arrest warrant?”
Nick grimaced. “You know they’re always trying to pin me for murder, since it happens so frequently within a three-block radius of here.”
Marcus nodded, satisfied by that answer. “If you want to feel useful, Nick, a ride to the airport would not be unappreciated.”
“With a stop for a certain Celt along the way?” Nick asked, amused, as he reached for his sword, jacket, and keys. From the way Nick acquiesced to the request, Marcus concluded he’d been worried that Marcus would go without someone to back him up. As if Marcus hadn’t survived for over two thousand years without learning when not to go alone? Still, he appreciated the sentiment.
Marcus returned the smile. “A good man never keeps a woman waiting.” Sobering, he stopped the ex-cop before they could exit the room. “Be careful, Nick. If it’s who I think it is, then the battlefield just became messier. They may come looking for me.”
“I told you we should’ve taken him out then.”
“And I said I wanted to be sure I wasn’t his only target,” Marcus replied evenly. “Coming after me a year ago was not random, but as I said then, it wasn’t unusual, either. I’m one of the oldest of us.”
Nick sighed impatiently. “Yeah, yeah, once is an accident, twice is a pattern, three times is enemy action. But, Marcus – if it’s truly another of Caio’s students, how can you be sure there aren’t others? Eliot killed one when he saved you; I took out the second, the one we both were fooled into thinking was a helpless newbie in need of training, a job, and shelter. You killed Caio Lucchese two days after that – but this indicates he’s trained at least one we didn’t know about. You know he liked pulling his students’ strings. You said you thought he had a long-range plan, but that the quickening settled before you could really see what – or who – he was after.”
Marcus stood firm. “You let me worry about that.”
Nick sighed. “I hate it when you pull the ‘older, wiser, lived longer’ shit on me. Especially since I know your assumptions are occasionally crap.”
“May I remind you that your assumptions about Amanda’s intentions have you running a bar on holy ground?”
Nick grinned at that and opened the office door. “I forgave her for that a long time ago.”
The following afternoon, Eliot sat in the brewpub at the bar, checking over the food order on his tablet. Leverage Consulting was between clients; they’d agreed that the heat from their last job needed to die down a bit before they took another one. Besides that, none of them wanted to risk flying when winter seemed to want to freeze everywhere; Parker hated being cold. Eliot hated it too, so spending the coldest months of the year in Portland didn’t sound too bad, especially since it lent credibility to their brewpub operation. Getting the chance to spend the time to be the executive chef also soothed Eliot in ways he couldn’t begin to explain, especially with the threat promised by the leaked video.
It was midafternoon on a Saturday – too late for lunch, too early for dinner – and the brewpub only had a quarter of the tables occupied. Two sports diehards seated at the bar were paying attention to what was being shown on ESPN. Their debate registered as low-level noise, though he’d earmarked it for possible intervention if it got out of hand. Eliot was grateful they weren’t in Seattle, where the fervor over the Super Bowl was reaching a fever pitch.
Eliot had just hit submit on the order and was about to get up to talk to the kitchen staff about the evening’s special when the door to the brewpub opened, bringing a gust of cold with it that made Eliot instinctively look up to see who walked in. The raven-haired, fair-skinned, strikingly attractive woman in black leather, jeans, and thigh-high boots was no one Eliot recognized, though he appreciated her beauty all the same. Her male companion was equally distinctive. His dark brown hair was thinning, his oval face was angular, with a strong nose, and he carried himself with the dominating grace of a tank – or a Roman general, which Eliot knew he’d been, once upon a time. He wore a long wool coat, tailored to hide the sword Eliot knew he had to be carrying. Unerringly, the pair headed towards where Eliot sat. Both carried carry-on-sized bags.
“I thought I was picking you up tomorrow,” Eliot greeted.
Marcus smiled. “I thought it best to arrive early. Is there somewhere we can talk privately?”
“Just let me tell my sous that I’ll be gone for a bit,” Eliot replied.
Marcus looked surprised at the notion that Eliot was anything other than a trained hit man, and Eliot hid a smile. He quickly stepped into the kitchen, finding the wiry, middle-aged Vietnamese man who was his sous chef working on a food order.
“Võ, I’m going to be in the back room for at least an hour. Can you handle it without me?”
“Is this one of those hours where you disappear for three days or an hour where you come back?” Võ asked.
“Hopefully, the latter, but probably the former,” Eliot told him. “You know how things run around here.”
Võ grinned. “You tell the boss man I want a raise.”
Eliot didn’t dignify that with a response; they both knew the chef was a sous only in name.
“Anything I can get for you before we head on back?” Eliot asked Marcus and his companion after he exited the kitchen.
“Food can wait for the moment,” Marcus said evenly.
Nodding, Eliot led the way to the back room. Parker was there, munching on popcorn as she watched the monitors.
“I’m not sharing my popcorn,” she announced.
“Nobody asked you to,” Eliot said evenly. “Marcus, this is Parker. She’s a thief. Parker, this is my friend, Marcus Constantine and – I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Emily Harris,” she introduced herself, and Eliot knew instinctively it was an alias. Few women he’d ever met carried themselves with such warrior grace; whatever her original name was – and from the way her jacket hung, he was certain she was just as immortal as Marcus was – it was likely something instantly recognizable.
Parker eyed the pair for a bit longer than she normally did with people she’d never met before, and Eliot glanced at her, worried. She was better with people than she used to be, but there were still odd moments where she was completely unpredictable.
“Are you here to fix Eliot’s problem?” she asked.
“Yes,” Marcus confirmed.
“As much as we can,” Emily amended.
Parker nodded once, satisfied. “I’ll get Hardison, then.” She deposited the bowl of popcorn on the bar and bounced up the private staircase to the second floor.
Emily shrugged out of her jacket and hung it across the back of one of the bar stools as Marcus did the same with his coat. “You have quite the set up back here,” she observed, glancing at the video screen, which was currently set to show the brewpub’s many cameras.
“Parker likes to study people,” Eliot offered. “And we prefer to have warning if our enemies came looking for us.”
“Who’s Hardison?” Marcus wanted to know.
“Best hacker I know,” Eliot told him. “My other partner. We help people get payback for what the rich and powerful stole from them.”
Marcus froze briefly at that. “I had heard rumors of a group like that,” he said carefully. “Is that why you were in Paris?”
“I heard there was a bar built on the ruins of a church, run by a friend of a friend of a friend,” Eliot said. “Thought I’d see what it was about, see how good my French was.” He felt, more than saw, Parker coming to stand beside him on his left, knew Hardison was on his right.
“Now if ya’ll are done with the posturing and the peacocking, I’d like to get down to who the fuck decided to leak that video,” Hardison said, “and see if we can kick his or her ass six ways to Sunday.”
Emily chuckled. “Not inclined to mess around, are you? You must be Hardison.”
Hardison nodded and reached for the remote. Clicking the button, he brought up the still of the video. “Now, I’ve tracked the source of the original video to an apartment in Paris, barely bigger than a closet, but the interesting thing is that it’s owned by this guy –” and here Hardison clicked again, bringing up a military ID photo, side-by-side with an employee ID. “Look familiar to anyone?”
The man in the photo was blond, blue-eyed, with wide shoulders and a completely forgettable face. Hollywood would cast him as the farmer or the boy next door.
“That’s Jonathan Sellers,” Eliot said. “We were in the same unit. I haven’t seen him since I went freelance.”
Marcus stared. “I know him,” he said. “He’s the assistant to the business manager at the museum.”
“Which museum?” Parker asked, taking a seat in front of the video screen.
“Musée de l’Homme,” Marcus replied as he took the seat next to her.
“That’s been closed for renovation since 2009,” Parker noted.
“We hope to reopen next year, if everything goes according to schedule.”
“You’re the curator,” Hardison said, and Marcus nodded, not surprised at the identification. Hardison turned to Emily. “Your name isn’t Emily Harris. You need to patch your records; faking a birth certificate isn’t going to cut it anymore. Your story has a few holes, lady.”
‘Emily’ looked startled, but she recovered quickly. “Perhaps you could fix that for me, later. We’ll stick with Emily, shall we?”
Hardison smiled. “If you don’t kill Eliot, we’ll see what we can –”
“Hardison, focus,” Eliot interrupted. “It’s only my life at stake, no big deal. You can make deals with Emily or whatever her name is later.”
Hardison pouted, but before he could say anything, Parker said, “So this guy knows Eliot and Marcus. What does he hope to gain by leaking the video?”
“It’s an invitation to the Game,” Marcus said. “Either he suspects you’re one of us, Eliot, or he believes you know how to find us.”
“I told you before, Marcus. I want no part of your Game.”
“From what Marcus told me,” Emily said, “you interfered with a challenge.”
“Look, I’m not going to just stand there and let someone get killed. That wasn’t a fair fight.” Eliot crossed his arms.
“What happened?” Emily asked.
“I told you already,” Marcus replied, looking irritated.
“Ignore him and humor me,” Emily said. “I’d like to hear Eliot’s side of this story.”
“I heard two people fighting with swords in the alley,” Eliot told her. “Caught my attention because I’d just stepped around the corner to see where Sanctuary’s back door led. Marcus was winning; the other guy pulled out a Taser and shocked Marcus into dropping his sword.” Eliot smiled thinly. “Normally I don’t get involved in things like that, but if you’re going to kill someone, don’t use a Taser. It’s too traceable.”
“Why’s that?” Parker wondered.
“A personal Taser, when fired, leaves serial number confetti behind,” Eliot explained.
“And Tasers, like poison, are cheating,” Emily replied, shooting Marcus a look that said very clearly that he’d left out that part. “I had been wondering why you chose to step in, considering where the incident happened.”
Marcus sighed impatiently. “Nick did show up,” he pointed out.
“After I’d defeated the guy trying to attack Marcus,” Eliot reminded him. “Nick’s the one who explained to me why I saw lighting. Marcus was inclined not to tell me anything.”
Emily grinned. “Sounds like Nick,” she agreed.
“Whoa, back up a minute,” Hardison interjected. “You three are talking about something I’m not sure I’m supposed to be asking about, but it sounds like it might be, I dunno, relevant or something to why this old buddy of Eliot’s is after him now.”
“Are you like Gina de Valincourt?” Parker asked. “Swords-people who never get old?”
Marcus and Emily stared at her. “How do you know Gina?” Marcus asked carefully.
“I was hired to steal a nine-carat pink diamond from her,” Parker explained. “She caught me just as I was about to exit. Thought I was someone named Amanda until she saw me.”
Emily’s eyes widened. “You’re Gina’s thief?”
Parker shrugged awkwardly. “She pays me well not to steal from her, so…yes?”
Marcus narrowed his eyes. “She told you about us?”
“She came at me with a sword.”
Eliot groaned. “How old were you, Parker?”
“Sixteen. First and last person I ever shot,” Parker admitted. “Neat trick. I asked her if I could learn that and she said I was better off buying bulletproof vests.”
Hardison stared at his lovers. “How is it that I’m the last person to know what you’re all talking about?”
Marcus looked at Eliot. “He’s going to need to know eventually, Eliot, if you trust him to protect you.”
“Can we just skip to the part where we talk about why Sellers is after me?”
Marcus sighed. “We can’t, Eliot, because I suspect it’s tied directly into the part you’d like to skip. I’ve seen this tactic used before, but usually it’s with students.”
Eliot groaned and rubbed his forehead. From the sounds of it, Parker already knew about immortals. Hardison didn’t – or maybe he did and just didn’t know he did; it was hard to tell sometimes because the hacker tended to dismiss non-computer things as irrelevant when he was on a coding streak. “Maybe you’d better explain it, Marcus.”
“Some people are born with a gift,” Marcus explained. “It’s a blessing and a curse, but it’s a gift that’s not triggered until you die for the first time. Eliot is one of those people.”
Hardison stared at Eliot for a long, wordless moment. “Seriously? Because I could’ve sworn you were a robot, man, the way you operate sometimes.”
Eliot looked at him. “That’s all you got to say?”
“What? If you were green and covered with polka dots, we’d have to have a talk, but no, we’re still cool. I mean, there have been rumors for years about people who could live forever – someone released this database back in ’99 that looked like some serious shit, maybe even legit, but it was all for this wicked game that some developer was gonna do but they never released it. Something about not enough processing power, not enough bandwidth, I dunno, but –”
“You saw the database?” Emily asked dangerously.
Hardison paused, caught by the tone of her voice. “I may have,” he admitted. “But I’ve been in a lot of databases, I mean, a guy like me has to practice somewhere on something and I may or may not have been anywhere near something that would make George Lucas wet his pants for the sword fights alone.” When Marcus turned his attention to him, Hardison added, a little desperately, “I’m a hacker. I hack things. I don’t always believe what I read, mind you. I mean, lightning coming out of a person? That’s gotta be special effects, right?”
“Not always,” Marcus told him.
It took Hardison a full fifteen seconds to connect the dots. “The video of Eliot taking someone’s head off, the camera cut out because it got fried by lightning?”
“Yes,” Eliot acknowledged. “Freakiest thing I’ve ever seen. Hit the camera before hitting Marcus.”
“Which brought Nick running,” Marcus finished. “Nick owns the bar in front of the alley.”
“Why isn’t he here?” Eliot asked.
“Interpol has made it clear if he leaves Paris, he’ll be arrested,” Marcus replied. “And I’d rather have someone still there to make sure the trail stays cold on that side.”
“You think this guy you and Eliot both know is after you because of…” Parker searched for the right word. “Whatever it is that you are.” She frowned. “You can’t buy what you are.”
At Emily’s raised eyebrow, Eliot hastened to explain, “Parker thinks of value in terms of money – not to spend, but to have and admire like some people do with art.”
“But wait a minute,” Hardison interjected, frowning. “I’m missing something here. Marcus, you said ‘first death.’ That implies you get some kind of regeneration spell or something?”
“Not a spell, but a kind of magic all the same,” Emily replied. “Once you die that first time, you’ll heal from all wounds except neck wounds. The only way to die permanently…”
“Is by the sword,” Marcus finished. “Eliot hasn’t died yet. Which means that Sellers either thinks Eliot knows how to get in touch with a stronger immortal or he thinks that Eliot is one already. Either way, leaking the video was the fastest, easiest way to get Eliot’s attention.”
“Because he doesn’t know how else to reach me, can’t trust I’d know to check the last email address he had for me,” Eliot added.
Parker looked at Emily, then at Marcus. “How do you want us to protect Eliot?”
Marcus turned to Hardison. “Can you track Sellers, find out where he is? I know he left the museum a few weeks ago; the business manager was quite upset that he’d decided to resign.”
Hardison grabbed the wireless keyboard off the table. “Give me a few minutes,” he said. He glanced at Eliot and Parker, then at their guests. “Might want to grab some dinner,” he added. “If he was in Paris and left, it’s gonna be an hour to track him down.”
Eliot looked at him and knew the hacker was deliberately stalling. “Something wrong? You’re usually faster at finding people than that. And I wouldn’t switch languages if I were you.”
Hardison glared at him. “ Y’all are seriously just gonna stand there and tell me some people can live forever, and you’re the target of some dude you used to train with – which means he knows your moves – and you’re not freaked out?”
“Eliot isn’t the prime target,” Marcus replied. “I am. And yes, we are going to tell you exactly that, Hardison. Surely this isn’t the first time you’ve had a loved one in danger.”
“I don’t know you from a hole in the ground,” Hardison replied steadily. “And from what I’ve heard so far makes me think that you’re the one in need of protection, not Eliot.”
Emily looked at Marcus, mouth twitching in a hint of smile. “He has a point.”
“You know who I am,” Marcus replied. “I’m Marcus Constantine – and yes, I’m that Marcus Constantine. I'm trusting you with my name and my life, Hardison, because Eliot does. Do you need more than that?”
“Maybe,” Hardison said flatly. “Because Parker tosses me off skyscrapers and Eliot will use me as bait, but I still think they’re family.”
Marcus smiled. “I’ll keep that in mind. Dinner would not be out of order while we discuss this. Is there a way to get an order in here?”
“I’ll get Amy to come in and take it,” Parker volunteered.
“Does the staff here know what you do?” Emily asked.
“Amy does,” Parker said. “She’s the senior server. I helped rescue her from being kidnapped while the guys were on another job. She doesn’t know everything, though, just that we’re not 100% law-abiding. Võ , the sous chef, pretends he doesn’t know we’re criminals, but we all know he’s just pretending.”
“Make sure she announces herself,” Emily suggested. “We don’t need another security breach.”
Parker nodded and went to fetch the waitress as Marcus deliberately turned the conversation to something more innocuous while Hardison kept hunting.
Thanks to N and Rhi for the edits and encouragement.
Twenty minutes later, Amy returned with their food and drinks. Once she'd exited the room, Marcus broke the silence that had fallen.
“Are you planning on eating, Hardison?” he asked, sounding concerned as he cut into the flat iron steak he’d ordered.
“Yeah, yeah, a little later. I know where Sellers is, but I’m tracking the credit card he’s using. It isn’t in his name and the company is looking a little fishy. I'm running an automated process to track the money but I’m checking to make sure I didn’t miss any side trails.”
“Let him be, Marcus,” Eliot told him as he walked over and swapped Hardison’s bottle of orange soda out for a fresh one. “We’ll stick a sandwich in his hand later.”
“As long as it’s not that veggie crap you tried to make me eat last week. I’m telling you, winter greens are what you fertilize your lawn with, and the fact that I even know what winter greens are is just pathetic. You’re ruining my geek cred, here.”
Eliot grinned. “And I’ll keep on ruining it if it keeps you alive. Told you that before.” He turned to Parker, who was eying her sandwich dubiously. “Parker, it’s a bánh mì sandwich. You liked it two days ago.”
Parker stared at it. “It looks different.”
“Võ made it, not me, that’s why. He’s a little sloppier in his presentation but more generous with his ingredients.”
Parker took an experimental bite, then shrugged and continued eating.
“You’re not eating either,” Emily observed.
“Ate before you guys showed up. I was planning on being in the kitchen all night.” Eliot shrugged. In hindsight, he should’ve expected someone with Marcus’ military experience to show up earlier than stated; he’d have done the same, just to scope out the layout of the land. “So, do you think we can make a stand here or should we take it to Sellers?”
Emily and Marcus exchanged looks, though both continued eating. Emily put down her fork first. “You have this building well-wired for security,” she noted. “And it is holy ground, so you have that advantage as well. However, if Sellers thinks you’re immortal, he’ll want to draw you out, isolate you.”
“So we pick the time and place,” Parker said. “Control the variables as much as we can.”
“You can’t guarantee that scenario,” Emily objected.
Parker barked out a laugh. “Actually, yes. In another fifteen minutes —”
“Twenty, you think I can work miracles,” Hardison corrected.
“—twenty minutes, Hardison will have all the information we need to set Sellers up so that he thinks he’s the one holding the cards. But we will.”
Emily stared at her a moment before looking at Marcus. “And here you thought Eliot was unprotected.”
Marcus chuckled ruefully. “I never considered you’d have a hacker and a thief on your side, Eliot. You struck me as a lone wolf the last time we talked.”
Eliot grinned. “I try not to get them involved when I’m on vacation.”
It's my birthday today, but you're getting the presents. :-)
“Sellers has an apartment on the West Slope,” Hardison announced nearly twenty minutes later. “It’s a six-month lease, paid for by a company called Tribù di Uno.”
“Caio Lucchese’s company,” Marcus surmised as he set his now-empty plate aside.
Hardison shook his head. “He’s the vice president. A woman named Laura Adcock is listed as president.” The hacker hit a button to bring up the woman’s photograph. She was a blonde with an aggressively angular face, brown eyes, and wide shoulders. The photograph showed her in a gray blazer and a cream blouse, and looked like the standard headshot for a company website.
Marcus stared at the screen and swore.
Emily looked at him. “How do you know her?”
“I met her shortly after she graduated college, five years ago. We spent the summer falling in love. I considered proposing marriage to her until I found her kissing Lucchese.”
“This Lucchese, was he a long-time rival of yours?” Eliot wondered.
Marcus shrugged slightly. “He thought he was better than me. He thought I was being pretentious, calling myself ‘Marcus Constantine’, all because I wasn’t making a name for myself by playing the Game or training students who were active players. I’ve known him for the last thirty years. ”
Hardison’s eyes narrowed. “So you’re telling me that you guys have, what, some kind of turf war going on?”
“The last immortal will have won enough power and knowledge to rule the world,” Marcus replied. “And yes, it’s a genocide of those who can live forever, which is one reason why I’m not interested in seeing the Game to its end. I’ll fight for the people I care about and do what I can to help those in need.”
“But not everyone thinks that way,” Parker said. “I used to steal just because I like money. I mean, I still like money, but I like helping people.”
Emily bit back a smile; she liked the thief more with each passing moment. “We have our share of good guys and bad guys. Lucchese was one of the ones in the middle, or so I thought. For me, he was just annoying – the guy thought ‘no’ was a ‘maybe, if I ask you in another decade or two.’”
“He was an art expert, but his expertise wasn’t Roman sculpture; it was French painters. It drove him crazy that I knew more than he did,” Marcus finished. “I didn’t see him as a credible threat until a few years ago. He sent one of his students after me. That’s when I started realizing that he wanted me dead.”
“All the records I can find for Lucchese show that he died six months ago,” Hardison noted. “Was that permanent?”
“Yes.” Marcus saw no point in hiding that.
“So if he’s dead, then what’s the point in sending Sellers after you?” Parker wondered.
“I’m not the only old immortal around,” Marcus said. “But I am one of the oldest.”
Eliot stared at him. “You said you took Lucchese out. So how does your ex-girlfriend play into this?”
“She was like you when we met. I had no intention of either telling her what she’d become or what I was until it became absolutely necessary to do so, and depending on her mental state at the time, perhaps not even then.”
“Because not everyone can handle that kind of truth,” Parker surmised.
“Other people would call us cold for considering that kind of lie,” Emily noted.
Parker smiled. “I blew up my parents’ house because my father hid my bunny and told me to be a better thief.”
“With him in it?” Emily asked, shocked.
Parker angled her head. “He hit my mother and he hid my bunny. Bunny didn’t do anything to him.”
“He was injured, not killed,” Eliot clarified, stepping closer to Parker. Talking about her childhood made her more likely to be upset, and he knew she tended to attack when she was in that mood. “And you got Bunny back, didn’t you, Parker?”
Parker grinned. “Nobody takes Bunny away from me.” She studied Emily a moment. “That bothers you.”
“I’ve lived for over a thousand years, Parker. I’ve yet to hear a story like yours that didn’t make me wish I could undo the wrongs that were done.”
“I wouldn’t be the same person,” Parker replied. “And boring besides.”
Emily and Marcus laughed at that. “Can’t have that,” Emily agreed. She turned to Marcus. “It’s a safe bet, then, that your ex-girlfriend is one of us now.”
Marcus nodded. “It would explain who was still pulling Sellers’ strings. When you trained with him, Eliot, was he a good soldier?”
“Middle to back of the pack. I got paired with him as my battle buddy at first because I wasn’t interested in being the number one guy; I just wanted to get through it to the best of my ability without killing myself like I heard some guys doing.”
Marcus smiled. “Something tells me you left Sellers behind fairly quickly.”
“Scenery only changes for the lead dog,” Eliot said easily. “Sellers had the heart and the compact strength, but not the brains. He needed to be told what to do.”
“So he’d be looking to you for guidance,” Emily said. “Where do you want to set this up?”
“If you don’t want to do it here,” Hardison replied, changing the screen to show the location he’d selected, “there’s a warehouse not far from here. We’ll need to fix it up, but it’ll give Parker and me time to go through Sellers’ apartment, see if there’s anything we can find to make sure the trail stops with Sellers. If he has friends or if this Laura person’s coercing him somehow, stuff like that.”
“Anything on that video site since you pulled the video?” Eliot asked.
“Sellers was rebutting things for a good hour and a half, but since I made the video vanish, he’s been getting a ton of hate mail and he got banned from the site, so he can’t post anything. He has a profile on Facespace but it’s a lot of crappy nature photos.”
“You think nature is crappy,” Eliot pointed out.
“No, I’m serious, this is like the stuff people who don’t know how to take pictures post – thumb in the frame, out of focus, portrait when it should be landscape…”
Emily winced. “It sounds as if he thinks he needs to post something?”
“Exactly. Which makes me think he’s either that awkward or someone’s telling him he needs to have a visible online presence. I’m telling you, Facespace is not how you do it.”
“Where’s Laura now?” Marcus asked.
Hardison sent a query to his program, which returned a freeze-frame shot of a blonde leaning out of an old Renault to pay a fee at an attended parking lot. Hardison rattled off the Italian address. “Oh, and it looks like she was caught speeding a few minutes earlier.”
“Remind me never to go through Italy again,” Emily said. “I hate traffic cameras.”
“Keep a tracker on her, just in case. I’ll call Nick,” Marcus said quietly, “and let him know who to look for, in case she decides to come to Paris.” He considered the group before him. “Emily, I’d like you to go with Eliot to meet Sellers. I’ll go with Parker and Hardison, just in case Sellers has managed to find himself a friend who’s one of us.”
“What happens then?” Hardison asked. “Because if I happen to run into that other guy first, I’m almost guaranteed to lose. I haven’t killed anybody yet and I don’t intend to start.”
“Do you know how to fight?” Marcus wanted to know.
“Just with knives and whatever Eliot’s tried to teach me.” Hardison looked at Marcus, and groaned. “No, I am not stabbing anyone. I hate blood. I’m a hacker, damn it, not whatever you think I should be.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Emily interjected. “I presume you’ve found Sellers’ phone number, Hardison?”
“Let’s call him, set him to meet at that location you picked out. Or did you need time to set that site up?”
“Would like to scope it out,” Parker said. “Make sure that it’s easy to exit.” She shot Hardison an amused glance. “And not, as Hardison keeps pointing out, my definition of ‘easy exit,’ which is ‘I can toss a rope and rappel out.’”
“It’s one of the backup locations Nate had me acquire,” Hardison explained. “In case we ever got overrun here. Utilities are on but there’s no furniture or walls except the exterior ones; place is pretty much gutted. We can toss a couch in if you’re willing to run by Parker’s place on the way there.” At Parker’s look of surprise, Hardison quickly added, “The one I picked up from Goodwill that you hate.”
“Oh, that one you keep telling me you’ll haul to your place? Okay.”
“A couch wouldn’t be a bad idea,” Emily said. “No telling how long it’ll take Sellers to show up, and it’ll make it look like some place Eliot’s had a while.”
“Sounds like you have an idea how to play this,” Eliot noted.
Emily nodded. “Nothing elaborate, but here’s what I think we should do. Marcus, Hardison, Parker – chime in if you think this needs more work, but if we keep it simple, it should go well.”
The quartet discussed Emily’s plan, along with possible contingencies, as well as what Hardison and Parker hoped to find at Sellers’ apartment while Sellers was occupied. It was late evening by the time they finished.
“We can execute this tomorrow, after we’ve all had some rest. I know this may be an intrusion,” Marcus said, “but I would feel better if either I or Emily stayed with you until this is over.”
Eliot nodded, not surprised by the request. “If you don’t mind sharing an air mattress, we can put you up on the third floor, in the studio. There’s a full bathroom up there as well.”
“We’ve slept on worse,” Marcus assured him.
It didn’t take long to get the two immortals settled on the third floor with spare bedding and the queen-sized air mattress. The Leverage trio bid them goodnight before heading to their own bedroom on the second floor.
“You trust them,” Parker said as she undressed for bed and took her usual position in the middle. Hardison was in the shower, and both of them knew better than to interrupt him while he did so.
Eliot stripped to his underwear and slid under the covers. “I do. You don’t?”
“I want to,” Parker said. “Isn’t that good enough?”
Eliot leaned over and kissed her lightly. “From you? Yes.”
Parker purred and threw her arms around him. “Just don’t forget me when I’m gone.”
“Parker, I don’t think I ever will,” Eliot said quietly, and kissed her again.
“Then let’s not –” Parker gasped when Eliot dipped his head to swirl his tongue around one of her nipples – “start something without Hardison.”
“You two are going to be the death of me,” Eliot swore, though without much heat. He knew Hardison was afraid he liked Parker more, but Eliot couldn’t justify his attraction to Parker anymore than he could to Hardison; they were both what he wanted. Still, if it kept the arguments to a minimum, Eliot was willing to wait. It was more fun with Hardison anyway.
Parker kissed Eliot, soothing him. “Be another minute. I heard him stop singing.”
Eliot used the time to hold her close, enjoying the moment. It wasn’t long before Hardison, still a little damp in spots from the not-quite-thorough toweling he’d done, joined them.
For the first time in a long time, Parker and Hardison wouldn’t let Eliot take control; they seemed to want to lavish attention on him instead, and he let them. He wasn’t sure how the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours were going to go, but he had a feeling that it was going to change everything.
Seated in his apartment, Jonathan Sellers stared at his ringing phone, which identified the caller as E. Spencer. While he’d hoped for a response, he hadn’t been expecting one within seventy-two hours of posting the video. Somehow, he’d imagined that it would take a week if he were lucky. Muting the TV show he’d been watching, he answered. “This is Jonathan. How’d you get this number?”
Eliot laughed. “The SpecOps white pages,” he replied. “Or did you just hope I’d be idiot enough to reply to your video post?”
Jonathan frowned, caught off guard by that question. Somehow, it hadn’t registered that Eliot was capable of ferreting his unlisted cell number out. “I figured you’d just reply privately.”
Eliot laughed again, in a way that said clearly he thought Jonathan was an idiot. “How long have you been playing the Game, Jonathan? A year? Did your teacher not educate you on how to hide? Or were you hoping I’d help?”
“My teacher’s dead,” Jonathan admitted. “I mean, he left me instructions, but…I can’t get a hold of some of the people he said I should meet. Then there’s the list of people he wanted me to challenge. I thought since it looked like you know about us already, and we trained together, you could help. Maybe you and I can double-team some of these people.” Jonathan paused. “I don’t know who else to ask, buddy. The other students my teacher trained are dead, too.” He shivered, remembering how he'd read about their deaths; it was the reason he'd decided it was time to flee Paris. He didn't want to end up like them, and the clock was ticking on his goal.
“It’s been a long time,” Eliot said, clearly hesitating. “You’re asking for a lot of trust.”
“I know it’s a lot,” Jonathan agreed. “Is there some place we can meet? Willamette National Cemetery, perhaps?”
“If it’s all the same, I’d rather not disturb the ghosts with our discussion,” Eliot returned evenly. “There’s a warehouse on SE 20th and Powell – white building, currently unoccupied. Meet me there in an hour.”
Jonathan stared at his phone again. This was not how he’d imagined the plan would go, but maybe he could turn Eliot’s eagerness for a challenge into a benefit.
Eliot disconnected the line, which had been on speaker, and looked over at his companions. “He’s taken the bait.”
“He’s hunting from a list,” Emily growled. “Going shopping for Quickenings. No doubt Lucchese dreamed this up, hoping that his students would be easy prey once they’d hit a certain amount! Do we know who trained Caio Lucchese? This sounds like the one Nick was telling me about, who’d calculated the mathematical probability of his winning!”
“What’s the advantage of taking heads?” Parker asked as she deftly wound rope into a duffel bag.
Startled, Emily looked at her. “It’s how we amass enough skill and power to be stronger. The lightning delivers the information.”
“Seriously?” Hardison looked intrigued. “Download via lightning storm? That would be –”
“Painful,” Marcus interrupted. “And there’s always the threat that who you defeated could overload you and take your body.”
“Now that would not be cool,” Hardison agreed, packing up his laptop. “All your friends would think you’d won but you didn’t. If it happened to me, I’d be the annoying voice in his head going, ‘that’s my body you’re mistreating.’” Hardison glanced around. “All right, everybody’s got their comms, Parker’s got her gear, Eliot’s got his sword, Emily and Marcus are already armed, what are we missing?”
“How long before someone notices we’ve occupied the warehouse?” Emily asked. “Even if you do own the place free and clear, occupation after much absence tends to get noticed.”
“Three, maybe four hours. I’ll be monitoring the police scanner in the van, make sure no one calls it in, but that area’s been in flux for a while.”
“Then let’s get to it.”
Thanks for all the feedback and kudos so far!
Hope to have this finished and posted before I leave for Escapade at the end of the month, if not shortly thereafter.
Eliot sank into the Goodwill-find couch, finding it to be uncomfortably firm, as if it had started out its life that way and had never really been used enough to sink. Parker had placed a tracker on Jonathan’s car, so they had a good ETA on when he’d arrive. Aware that Emily was armed, Eliot had nonetheless stashed his sword underneath the couch, just in case.
“Something I’ve been wondering,” Eliot said to Emily, who sat beside him on the couch.
Emily cocked an eyebrow and waited.
“What’s your connection to Marcus?”
Emily smiled. “He was my first teacher. We’ve been friends for a very long time. It worries me that he thinks the new generation of immortals will abide by the same rules for the Game. He was a Roman general; he should know better. The tribes the Romans conquered…some of them fought dirty, and with better weapons.”
Eliot studied her a moment. “Sounds like you think he should personally know it because of something you did.”
Emily laughed. “Yes. But the longer you live, the more likely you are to hold onto every measure you hold dear. It can make you hidebound if you’re not careful, and Marcus…” She sighed. “Marcus still believes in honor in a way that has become passé. You’re a student of war, Eliot; it shows in the way you move, the way you hold yourself. You know that there will always be someone willing to break the law, to subvert it, for his own intentions. The Game is no different, and I’ve been trying to get Marcus to see that the inventions of the last forty years only accelerate the desire to win no matter what the cost. He still believes that immortals who’d do that are the exception, but given how many times I’ve seen or heard about it happening…”
“Probably the same percentage as serial killers and psychopaths among the general population,” Eliot surmised, “just feels more concentrated since you’re already a small percentage to begin with.”
Emily nodded. “This is why I hate the Game. I’ve seen so much in my lifetime; I don’t want it to end.” She drew a breath and met Eliot’s eyes. “I’m not here to sell you on being one of us. I just want to make sure that my oldest friend is safe.”
“Wondered if that was the case.”
Emily grinned at that.
Before either of them could say anything else, Parker broke the radio silence on the in-ear communication devices. “Head’s up, our guy is inbound. ETA five minutes.”
“Thanks, Parker,” Eliot acknowledged.
Eliot watched as the reed-thin man walked hesitantly through the warehouse door, sword at the ready. When neither Emily nor Eliot sprung up to meet him, Jonathan lowered his sword.
“How long have you been one of us, Spencer?” he wondered. “You feel damn strong. Or is that your girlfriend?”
“Only matters if you’re looking to win the Prize by yourself,” Eliot said evenly, “and not ask for help in doing it. Me, I’ll take whatever help I can get.”
Jonathan looked at him, caught off guard. Abruptly, Eliot remembered that Jonathan had been dead last in their training group by the end of training; he’d made it on sheer willpower and wiry strength rather than brains. “All right,” Jonathan said.
He took a seat on the second couch they’d wrestled into the space – Marcus had pointed out that it would look better if they tried to make it look like they were using the warehouse as a meeting location – and set his sword down on the coffee table they’d also added. He then pulled out a small black notebook out of his leather jacket and his phone.
“So here’s the deal,” Jonathan said as he called up something on his phone. “You help me find these people, and I’ll give you a cut of what I get when they’re dead.”
He handed the phone over to Eliot, who glanced at it briefly before he passed it over to Emily.
Emily read the list. “You want to go after Cory Raines?” she asked.
“Rumor has it he doesn’t carry a sword,” Jonathan shot back. “Should be an easy target.”
Emily’s eyebrows lifted at that. “Easy? The man’s a knife artist. Think you can dance fast enough to fight him?”
“Dance? Who said anything about dancing? I just want his head.” Jonathan looked annoyed.
“Thought you knew how to scope out a target,” Eliot said. He was picking up that these immortals were people Emily knew. He had a sneaking suspicion that they were people she considered family, given how long she’d known Marcus. Targeting an immortal’s family would be a sure way of getting a sick kind of revenge.
Emily’s lips tightened. “Then you’d better hope you learn quick, because the next people on your list haven’t survived this long without knowing how.”
“Who else is on that list?” Eliot wondered.
“Carl Robinson, Matthew McCormick, Alex Raven, Ceirdwyn, and Marcus Constantine,” Emily replied, and the way her tongue flowed over the Celtic name, Eliot knew instinctively it was hers. There was too much pride for it to be anything else. “And what’s this 25k next to each of their names mean?”
“How much they’re worth to me,” Jonathan replied impatiently. “So you gonna help or you just gonna be Eliot’s personal fuck toy?”
“Oh, sure, I’ll help you. I’m Ceirdwyn, and this is a challenge.” She rose, drawing her sword as she did so. “Or do you not think my head’s worth 75k?”
Eliot swore under his breath. This was not how the plan was supposed to go, but he’d assumed it might. Still, he’d taken a measure of her opponent, read the shock on his face.
“What, didn’t think I’d hook up with one of the best?” Eliot taunted.
“You…you weren’t supposed to get to her first,” Jonathan said, betrayed, and launched himself at Eliot.
Ceirdwyn, who slammed the flat of her sword against Jonathan’s chest, blocked him. “I don’t think so; the challenge is between you and me,” she reminded him. “There’s space over to our left, if you want to live.”
Jonathan froze for a moment, but then his face took on a devilish gleam. “Last head you took was more than a decade ago,” he told her, backing up and grabbing his sword.
She smiled thinly. “And the first one you killed was a month ago. Come on, boy. Who holds your balls? Because it sure as hell isn’t you.”
That had the desired effect. Heedless of the furniture, Jonathan attacked Ceirdwyn, who parried his first attack easily. Slowly, steadily, she drove him to the open warehouse floor, away from Eliot. Jonathan was skilled – whoever had taught him had given him enough training to ensure he had a shot at winning – but he was outclassed and outmatched.
“Come on, boy, if you want my head, you’re gonna have to do better than that,” Ceirdwyn taunted at one point.
There was simply no substitute for experience, Eliot thought, as he watched his former battle buddy lose a fight he never could’ve won on a good day. Ceirdwyn knew what moves to make, what counters to use, and she’d had years to figure out the way to fight against someone who wanted her dead.
When the Quickening lightning faded, Ceirdwyn took a deep breath and looked over at Eliot. “Sorry about your friend,” she said with sincerity. “I figured it would be easier if I dealt with him since I was on his list.”
“He hasn’t been my friend in years,” Eliot replied steadily. “How are you? And would you rather I called you Ceirdwyn?”
She cracked a half-smile. “I could use a drink, and Ceirdwyn’s fine when we’re not in public.”
“I'll get you that drink," Eliot promised. "Mind if I ask where you’re from?”
“An Iceni village Marcus destroyed,” she replied. “I was the only survivor.” She paused and looked directly at Eliot. “Jonathan was just the last pawn. We need to go for the queen.”
Eliot nodded, not surprised. Tapping his comm, he told the others, “Sellers is dead. We’ll meet you guys back at the pub in an hour, but we’ll be on radio silence until then unless it’s an emergency.”
“We’re almost done at his apartment,” Parker replied. “See you in an hour.”
Ceirdwyn walked over to the back of the sofa, where a box full of cleanup supplies sat. “Where’d we stash the tarp?”
“Other side,” Eliot told her, and they got down to the business of making a dead body disappear in way that would leave very little evidence. Eliot had no love for killing, but he understood that the Game left little room for survivors, with not much room left over for forgiveness.
“So what did you find out from Jonathan’s apartment?” Eliot asked when they regrouped in the brewpub’s back room.
Hardison stood in the center of the room, before the video screen. Eliot sat in the person-and-a-half chair just below the U-shaped bar. Parker perched on the edge of the chair, while Ceirdwyn and Marcus were seated at the mid-point of the bar.
“His computer had detailed instructions and a contract,” Hardison said. “He was to take no less than three heads. For every head he took that was a confirmed kill, he got twenty-five thousand US dollars – not euros, which apparently was an option. If he did more, he got a bonus payment. If he made it to six months, there’s a one-time million-dollar payment, for which he has to show up, with the head, in person, and present it to Caio Lucchese or his designated representative.”
“What happens if he fails?” Ceirdwyn asked. She’d changed out of the bloodstained clothes she’d worn and cleaned her sword. A half-empty pint glass bore testament to the fact that Eliot had delivered on his promise.
“If he fails to complete his task in the next ninety days, Caio or his representative will kill him.” Hardison paused. “If he misses a check-in, he automatically forfeits everything he has already earned, which, judging from his bank account, isn’t much.”
“He defeated three other immortals,” Ceirdwyn said. “No one I recognized, but I have a feeling other people I know might have.”
Marcus rubbed her arm reassuringly. “We’ll figure out who to notify later. What else did you discover?”
“A contact list of who else to notify. One of them is Laura. The others are, as far as I can tell, dead, except this guy.” Hardison pulled up the photo.
“He’s dead. I killed him,” Marcus stated flatly.
“No, you killed his designated proxy,” Hardison corrected, his hands underscoring his words. “Jonathan had notes on his hard drive that indicated if he got to a point where he was facing you, he was to see a plastic surgeon. Caio Lucchese set you up to take the head of one of his students.”
“But wouldn’t that drive you crazy?” Parker asked, looking at the two immortals.
As always, her ability to spot such things startled Eliot, and from the way Marcus and Ceirdwyn reacted, they weren’t expecting that insight from her.
“Yes.” Marcus’ eyes narrowed. “And if you weren’t prepared for it, you’d think you were hallucinating and could conceivably be so disoriented that you’d be easy prey.” He tapped the fingers of his right hand on the U-shaped bar top. “When is the next check-in?”
“Noon tomorrow,” Ceirdwyn said. “It was a reminder on his phone.”
“Do we have a track on where Laura and Caio are now?” Marcus asked.
The hacker shook his head. “Not yet. Wasn’t sure if you wanted me to track them down or if you wanted to do it yourself. Last check I made showed Laura still in Italy.”
“Your play,” Eliot said to the two immortals. “It’s not about me anymore. If you want us to back you, let us know how you want to run it; otherwise, it might be wise for us to step out. We’d rather not make any more waves with Interpol than we already have.”
“Considering the effort these two have made to ensure your invitation to the opening feature, Eliot, I wouldn’t put it past them to come here,” Marcus replied. “Why are you hesitating?”
“Because it’s not about running a scam on someone and making them wish they were dead,” Parker said bluntly. “You’re talking about more death.”
“If I could somehow guarantee that they would leave you safe,” Ceirdwyn said, “I would. You could ruin their reputations, force them to disappear, and it would only delay the fight. They mean to kill the entire family that Marcus has worked so hard to build – and for those of us who live forever, our students are really the only family we can honestly call our own. That list I read? Matthew was my student; Cory his first student and Carl, one of his most recent.”
Hardison looked at her and then Marcus. “When Eliot becomes like you, you intend to be his teachers.”
“Unless he’d rather have someone else,” Marcus replied. “Nick Wolfe would be an obvious choice, since it’s someone he already knows.”
“You mean the guy who let his security cameras record someone getting his head chopped off and then didn’t erase it?” Hardison asked. “No offense to anyone, but he would not be my first choice.”
Eliot half-laughed at that. “I am not studying with Nick. That would require moving to Paris, and he’s a little too quick to use a gun. I hate guns. Besides that, I’d rather have someone with a bit more experience at this Game.” He sobered and looked at his lovers. “Marcus is right. Once Jonathan misses his check-in, Laura and Caio will be here, looking for me.”
“If you think I’m gonna leave your ass hanging out in the wind, you’re so wrong,” Hardison shot back. “Parker, babe?”
The thief cocked her head and looked at Marcus. “I heard you talking to Ceirdwyn earlier,” she said, and her tone said that she’d heard ‘Emily’s’ real name. “You scolded her as if she was your daughter, worried that she’d gotten hurt. You’ve already adopted Eliot, even if he isn’t one of you yet.” She paused. “That says you can’t or won’t have kids.”
Marcus stared at her, disconcerted by her insight. “That matters to you because?”
“It means you aren’t in it for whatever fortune Laura and Caio have at their disposal. Means you won’t sacrifice Eliot,” Parker replied. “Which means Laura and Caio might assume the same.”
The slow grin spread across Marcus’ face as he admired her perception. “Then we’d better be prepared.” To Hardison, he said, “You were able to put Jonathan where we wanted him. Can you do that with Laura and Caio?”
The Leverage crew looked at each other. Words were exchanged in that look before Parker addressed Marcus, words like ‘is worth the risk?’ and ‘we’ve already buried one body’ and ‘we won’t rest if we walk away now.’
“Yes,” Parker said, even as Hardison’s fingers were flying over his keyboard and Eliot reached up to grasp her hand tightly.
All previous parts have been edited; the final parts will be posted next week. Thanks for all the feedback so far!
Parker made the call to Laura later that evening to account for the time zone difference. Out of courtesy to her companions, it was on speakerphone. “May I please speak to Ms. Laura Adcock?” Parker asked in heavily accented French.
“This is Laura.”
“My name is Alice White. I'm with Palace Antiquities; we locate rare art for special collectors. Do you speak English?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Thank you. My French isn’t very good,” Parker said apologetically. “I understand that you were looking for a particular piece of art for your private collection…”
“You found it?” Laura asked, astonished, leaping. “My agent said it didn’t exist, the gold headdress of a lost Mayan queen.”
Parker scoffed. “Your agent is in Europe, is he not? Some treasures stayed on this side of the Atlantic for superstitious reasons. I can arrange for a private viewing of the merchandise if you’re willing to come to Portland, Oregon, in three days’ time. The seller wishes to part with it quickly; he says it doesn’t like men.”
Laura laughed at that. “Send me the information and I will be there.”
“Your email address?”
“Laura.adock@tribu_di_Uno.com,” Laura said.
“You’ll receive an invitation from Palace Antiquities shortly,” Parker said. “Failure to show up at the location will mean no further opportunities to view other rare merchandise will be offered.”
From her position at the bar, Ceirdwyn watched the thief turn on the charm. By the end of the call, Laura’s every question had been answered; her desires to own something the world didn’t stroked to a fever pitch. It was another deadly facet to the thief’s personality…and one on which Ceirdwyn and Marcus both made notes. Marcus had been the one to suggest dangling a piece of art he knew both Laura and Caio had repeatedly wished they could obtain for various reasons.
Hardison made the second call to Caio, treating him to a similar spiel. An hour later, the hacker confirmed that Caio and Laura’s travel reservations for Portland had been made. That made it possible for him to ensure that they would show up, merchandise or no.
“You said earlier they’d get an automatic notification when Jonathan failed his check-in,” Marcus noted.
“Already covered,” Hardison said. “I hacked the notification to make it seem like Jonathan’s the third buyer at this little meeting we’ve arranged.”
“What about the art?” Eliot asked.
Hardison glared at him. “What, you don’t like what I do?”
“That painting you did was horrible,” Eliot replied.
“But it looked good!”
“I wouldn’t steal it,” Parker replied. “But I do have something that would work, as long as I get it back.”
“Thought you only stole for money,” Eliot observed.
“Sometimes I keep things when people don’t pay me,” Parker said with a shrug.
“I almost don’t want to ask,” Marcus began, “but what is it?”
“Oh, it’s ugly.”
Eliot stared at her. “The giant gold mask in the workout room is a real headdress?”
“Why would I lie about that?” Parker asked, bewildered.
Eliot just groaned.
Laura and Caio walked into the Portland warehouse three days later, clearly expecting to bid on an item Parker didn’t intend for them to have. From his position near the lone couch that had survived the previous fight, Marcus studied his former inamorata and his long-time rival. Dressed in a gray business pants suit with a cream blazer, Laura was every inch the striking, confident, smartly dressed woman he’d known she could become with a little guidance and experience. The suit balanced her wide shoulders, broad frame, small bosom, and generous hips. The rapier she held looked too dainty in her broad hand, and Marcus shoved aside the instinctive criticism of such a choice. Her shoulder-length blonde hair hung loose, and diamonds gleamed from her ears. Caio stood a half step behind and to her left, a slender, unassuming-looking man who seemed to live in the shadows. He’d worn a well-tailored business suit as well, but his was dark navy. He’d worn a bowtie, and he held a basket-hilt broadsword in his left. A smug smile tilted one corner of his mouth as if he knew what the outcome of this encounter would be.
Marcus’ previous interactions with the man had left him with the sense that the man was competent, but not particularly knowledgeable or willing to expend the effort to know more. Caio’s hate for Marcus’ breadth of knowledge had seemed petty at the time Marcus had first learned of it, but he hadn’t realized just how deep that emotion ran.
“I found your calling card. Was there something you wanted to discuss?” Marcus asked sardonically of Laura and Caio as they stood before him. Beside him, Ceirdwyn stood, sword at the ready, her long black hair braided into a coronet; Eliot stood beside her. Parker was in the rafters; Hardison was monitoring the situation from the brewpub, making sure the police didn’t come knocking.
“Your death, of course,” Laura spat. “How could you lie to me about what I was?”
“I didn’t lie,” Marcus replied evenly. “Merely failed to tell you the whole truth. I wanted to be sure you were capable of handling it first.”
“I’ll have your head for this,” Laura sneered.
“Go ahead, try,” Marcus invited. “And if you succeed, how long do you think it’ll be before Caio takes yours?”
Laura’s green eyes narrowed. “He wouldn’t.”
“Are you sure of that?” Ceirdwyn put in. “I don’t know him as well as you, but the way he’s watching you, I wouldn’t put it past him. Someone mad enough to set up his students to challenge other immortals for money…” She smiled tightly when Caio glared at her. “Oh, I’m sorry, am I speaking truths something you don’t like?”
“We’ll see who’s laughing when you’re dead,” he said evenly. “Unless that sword’s just decoration.”
Ceirdwyn laughed. “You don’t even know who I am.”
“I see a woman flanked by two men. I can’t tell if you’re the pre-immortal or if the silent one there is,” Caio replied. “Either stand down or get the fuck out of my way, woman.”
“So make me,” Ceirdwyn invited. “Or are your balls as high as Jonathan’s were?”
Tellingly, Caio hesitated, looking very much like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“Fight her,” Laura demanded crossly.
“No,” Caio said, surprising everyone. “You’re the one who put her on the list, since you were jealous of how fond Marcus was of her. You fight her.”
Laura stared at him for a long, wordless moment before raising her blade in salute to Ceirdwyn and using it to gesture to the cleared space just to the left of the couch.
From his position in the van, Hardison watched the live stream of the battle. He’d promised both Ceirdwyn and Marcus that he wouldn’t record any of it, but he needed to be sure that Eliot and Parker would get out alive. Parker was supposed to make sure no one ran out of the back door, but Hardison knew that if it was anyone other than the people they’d arrived with, Parker’s chances of getting out unharmed were slim. Silently, he hoped it didn’t go that way; Marcus’ plan seemed sound, but so had many of Nate’s. Hardison still had nightmares about being buried alive. Shaking off the shudder that memory produced, the hacker refocused his attention on the fight.
Ceirdwyn was, Hardison thought, like something out of some urban fantasy movie – or least, what he always pictured a female urban fantasy warrior should look like. He’d asked her what the spiral and triangle patterns she’d drawn on either side of her face meant, and she’d told him it was the warrior’s mark of her tribe for protection and strength. She’d dressed in black boots, black jeans, a navy long-sleeve t-shirt, and the Celtic broadsword she wielded was the oldest sword Hardison had ever seen outside of a museum. Watching her fight Laura now, Hardison knew he’d always think of her as the warrior queen, especially with the way her hair was braided.
Ceirdwyn blocked Laura’s attack easily. The rapier Laura was using seemed, even to Hardison’s eyes, a bad choice. Somehow, he’d always pictured rapiers with people who could move like the Three Musketeers – fast, sharp, precise, and Laura moved like a tank. Ceirdwyn wasn’t even breathing hard as she blocked every attack Laura made, almost as if the older woman was trying to wear her out. Ceirdwyn seemed to finally tire of the exercise, and disarmed Laura before going for the killing stroke.
Hardison saw the moment Caio realized Laura wasn’t going to win. Instinctively, Hardison shouted, “Watch out!” just in time to see Caio fire a gun at Ceirdwyn. Ceirdwyn’s arm was already committed to the movement, and Laura’s head fell at the same time the bullet hit. Ceirdwyn gasped at the hit, and Caio fired a second time.
Laura’s Quickening sought the nearest immortal, which happened to be Ceirdwyn. The Iceni woman screamed as it hit.
Furious at his cheating, Parker started to rappel down from her perch, just in time to see Marcus step forward and disarm Caio. “You wanted my head,” Marcus growled, tossing the gun aside. “Come see if you can take it.”
Caio smiled thinly. “I’m stronger than you think,” he boasted, and struck with his sword.
Marcus parried the strike, and Parker watched the battle unfold. In her ear, Hardison was swearing about how the live feed had been shorted out by the lightning.
“Shut up, Hardison,” Eliot snapped. “You’re distracting Marcus.”
Parker didn’t think that was true – Marcus seemed oblivious of anything other than fighting his opponent – but she didn’t want to risk it, either, so she kept silent. Marcus was ruthless poetry in motion, she thought, not the almost clinical precision of Ceirdwyn against Laura. Parker was always surprised when someone of Marcus’ build could move fluidly, but she supposed that if you lived forever, you had a lot of time to learn. The clash of swords was a ringing sound Parker knew she’d not soon forget.
Caio had managed to score a blow on Marcus’ left arm, but Marcus had managed to hit him a lot more. Caio was bleeding now from at least three locations, and as Parker watched, Marcus scored a gash on Caio’s right leg that made that leg collapse. Two more strikes caused Caio to fall onto Marcus’ sword, and Caio’s head fell away, rolling to a stop a few feet away as the Quickening hit.
Now, Parker rappelled to the floor and ran to Ceirdwyn, who still lay on the floor, looking stunned. “Ceirdwyn?” Parker asked cautiously, remembering her warning not to touch.
With a groan, the immortal woman reached blindly for Parker’s hand. “Help me up,” she requested.
“You okay?” Parker asked worriedly as she helped Ceirdwyn to stand.
Ceirdwyn winced as she breathed out. “I'll be sore for a few hours.” She glanced down at the two neat bullet holes over her heart. “Damn, I liked this shirt.” She looked over to where Marcus was crouched over Caio’s corpse and said something in a language full of consonants.
Marcus replied in the same language before taking a deep breath and sitting up. He waved off Eliot’s offer of help and said in English, “I’m all right. Just…what a waste.” Marcus shook his head and rose.
“Someone tell me what’s going on?” Hardison asked over the comm; only Parker and Eliot could hear him.
“Marcus, Ceirdwyn, can you hear Hardison?” Eliot asked.
Both immortals responded negatively.
Quickly, Eliot pulled out his phone and dialed the hacker so he could be heard on speaker.
“Hardison, can you still see us?” Marcus asked.
“No, that first lighting show took out the camera. I’m sitting blind.”
“Has the noise caused any alarms?” Marcus asked.
“None yet, but there’s a squad car a few blocks over. Might want to be quick. Ceirdwyn, can you hear me?”
“I’m fine, Hardison, thank you,” Ceirdwyn said. “You owe me a beer when we’re finished.”
“Anything you want,” Hardison replied, a smile clear in his tone. “I’ll have drinks for everyone when you’re done.”
“We’ll be there soon,” Marcus promised.
“You didn’t expect Caio to hate you this much?” Eliot asked Marcus quietly as they moved to gather the things they needed to clean up the mess.
“No,” Marcus admitted. “Nor did I think he’d go to these lengths.”
“Is it always this personal?”
“Yes, but you and I…we would not do well living as monks.”
Eliot grinned slightly at that. “Not as long as I have them in my life.”
Marcus smiled back, knowing exactly whom he meant.
“So how much of the video did you keep?” Parker asked Hardison two days later, after seeing Marcus and Ceirdwyn off at the airport. She already missed them, but they’d invited the trio to Paris anytime they wanted to visit. In her head, she knew she had ten minutes before Eliot finished his shift in the kitchen, and she wanted this settled before he showed up.
Hardison looked at Parker and started to protest, but she just favored him with a look. “I might’ve edited it down so Eliot can study it later for technique purposes,” Hardison admitted.
“Delete it,” Parker ordered. “All the copies.”
“They trusted us,” Parker pointed out. She wanted no repercussions from this, no reasons for other immortals to come knocking. Since she couldn’t be sure Marcus and Ceirdwyn would help them if they didn’t keep their promises, Parker was ruthless. “Do you want to give them a reason to doubt our word? You saw what they can do.”
Hardison groaned, but did as she requested. Parker climbed into his lap and proceeded to show him very enthusiastically just how much she appreciated his compliance.
“Is this for just you two or is there room for me?” Eliot asked, and the tone of his voice said he’d caught at least part of what she’d done to ensure their safety.
Parker lifted her head as Hardison made a wordless sound of protest and smiled at him. “Always room for you.”
Eliot smiled as he leaned in to kiss her, then Hardison.
It wasn’t going to be easy, Eliot thought, to live life, knowing exactly what he’d face, but until he chose to become immortal, he was going to enjoy every moment of not being one.
Thanks to everyone who read this as it was in progress! The kudos and comments really motivated me to finish this. :-)
I hope y'all enjoy this as much as I did writing it!