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than the worst thing I ever did

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Eliot wakes, first in increments, then in a rush of agony that has him gasping hard enough to send his lungs seizing all over again. He chokes, he coughs, he chokes, he hurts, every muscle sore, every bone itching with new growth.

His nerve endings are still misfiring because he died in screaming agony and it always takes them a moment to catch up to the fact that the damage is gone, that he’s whole again, the only pain left that of injuries healed too quickly, of too much energy spent to recover, too much blood lost.

His heartbeat is sluggish, a stop-stutter of missed steps that will keep up as long as it takes his body to replace the blood left behind on a pavement, somewhere, hopefully far away. Right now, his veins are still half-collapsed and he feels freezing cold and wound too tight for it. His skin doesn’t fit and his head hurts badly enough to make him see stars even before he opens his eyes.

His fingers twitch, involuntary spasms as nerves go mad and he feels rubber, plastic, something. Body bag. He knows the feeling, knows it too well, hates the things, airtight and hard to rip through, death waiting to happen yet again.

But this time, this time, the zipper is undone, his face and part of his chest free, he can breathe, even if it hurts like hell, he can breathe and there’s a voice right above him, chanting.

“Eliot, Eliot, Eliot,” like a questionprayerpleacommand.

Parker. He tries to raise his arm, to find her as he fights to open his eyes and her hands meet his, fingers soft and gentle, catching his fumbling ones and she squeezes briefly, doesn’t try to hug him.

She pokes his little wounds all the time, but she knows, she knows when he’s like this, everything hurts. So she restrains herself, cradles his hand and presses it against herself. Her forehead, he sees, when his eyes finally cooperate.

“’M ‘k,” he croaks, coughs again.

She beams at him, watery and too pale, like she’s the one who died, and holds his hand tighter. He doesn’t tell her it hurts because if he does, she’ll let go and he might just float away then.

Alec is there, suddenly, above his head, face looming, his grin bright in his dark face, hands ghosting over Eliot’s hair.

“You scared the shit out of us,” he announces, presses a brief kiss to Eliot’s temple, then shifts around, tugging at the bodybag. “Sorry you’re still in that thing, we barely got to you in time and we didn’t… we were afraid of moving you, man, I’m sorry, this sucks, but you were – “ He doesn’t finish.

There’s a sheen of unshed tears in his eyes and Eliot can only imagine what he looked like, before. Getting pushed off a rooftop will do that to the human body.

He smiles in reassurance because words are still hard, lets himself be pulled upright. Doesn’t look at his clothes, saturated with blood. He leans his forehead into Parker’s shoulder, feels Hardison against his back, warm and solid.

Hears Lucille’s front partition slide open and Sophie whisper, “Is he alright?”

Nate grumbles something in the driver’s seat. Eliot clenches his jaw and asks, “How long?”

Sophie answers, “About two hours,” at the same time Hardison says, “Almost there.”

Eliot nods, doesn’t tell Sophie that he didn’t ask about how long he was dead, that he doesn’t want to know. Alec’s answer is the one he’s looking for.

The van pulls to a halt around back and Parker is the one to help him stand. His legs work, more or less, the misfire in his every cell finally quieting, but his balance is off because his head is still bleeding slowly dissipating agony.

By the time they hit Nate’s place, he’s almost steady again, his body working through the reminder that it’s fine, it can move again, it’s healed. Or maybe just his mind, working through the pain. He beelines for the fridge when Parker lets him go, chugs half a carton of orange juice. When he turns to find something sugary and quick, Alec’s already there, a pack of store-bought cookies in hand, offering one up. Eliot gobbles down five, washes them down with the rest of the juice and feels his body get to work on turning fuel into blood.

Sometimes, Eliot adores the modern mentality of everything everywhere all the time. A few hundred years ago, getting the sugar, vitamins and whatever else he needs to restore that much blood would have been a lot harder. Bread, cheese, potatoes and various alcoholic brews aren’t really all that useful, in that regard.

He gives it a minute of standing in the kitchen, letting the food settle. His organs aren’t in any better shape than the rest of him, and sometimes there is… leftover damage, even after he revives. The others watch him, apprehensive, until he gives a quick nod to himself and treks to the couch. Alec follows, Parker is already there as he drops into it. Sophie, still in her garish con outfit, perches on the nearest chair, eyes tight with worry.

“Bleed on my couch, why don’t you,” Nate gripes close by and it’s a joke, Eliot knows that it’s a joke, Nate’s only trying to lighten the mood because Eliot isn’t dead anymore and this isn’t a funeral, but.

The low simmering fury Eliot has ignored since his first breath flares into a bushfire.

“Fuck you,” he snarls, gravelly and sharp and angry, full of pain and fury. He can hear his accent slip even in those two words and usually, that makes Alec smile because he finds it hilarious when Eliot’s English goes all wonky, but right now, no-one’s moving. “Fuck you,” Eliot repeats, “you killed me, Nate!”

“I…,” their mastermind looks honestly at a loss, like he doesn’t understand why this is different than the half dozen other times Eliot has died on a job. Hell, it’s how they found out in the first place. There were guns and there were thugs and it was Eliot or Parker and Eliot chose her, leapt in front of the bullets and died to save her life. No regrets. And he’s done it again and again since then.

It’s what he does. He takes the punishment so they don’t have to and when he can, when he has to, he takes their deaths, too.

“You’ve died before,” Nate argues and Eliot snarls, a wordless, animal noise of rage.

“For this crew! For the team! For people! Not for money! You let me get thrown off a fucking twelve story building for a fucking payout!”

“The client-“

“Fuck the client! And fuck you, too, if you think you get to make that choice!”

“The McAllisters need that money. Their son will die if they can’t pay for his treatment!”

“We could have found another way,” Alec argues, voice quiet the way it only ever is when everyone else is loud. Parker makes a quiet sound of discontent because she hates screaming, but she sticks close to Eliot anyway instead to running the way she wants to. “We could have saved Eliot and gotten the money.”

There’s guilt in his voice, when he’s the most blameless. He was in the van, three blocks away. Parker was across the street. Sophie could have done something, maybe. She was with Nate when he denied knowing Eliot after he got busted, let the goons kill him to close the deal.

Nate rubs his face, sticks his hands in his pockets. Shifts on his feet. Uncomfortable. Or maybe just conning them into believing he is. On days like these, Eliot wonders if it isn’t time to move on. To grab Parker and Alec and cut loose, because they once punished Sophie for weeks for conning them, but Nate does it all the time and they always let it slide because there’s victory at the end of the day.

Only this time, Eliot fell twelve stories for the victory. Not to save a life. Just for another tally mark on Nathan Ford’s mental list of Heroic Deeds Done.

“I knew you’d come back,” Nate finally says, apologetically.

Eliot deflates. He still hurts and if he doesn’t calm down, he knows he’ll kill Nate, or hurt him at least. So he exhales the fury and shakes his head. His hair, matted and caked with blood, moves with him like a helmet. “I still die, Nathan. I die just like everyone else and it hurts. Shattered bones, ruptured organs, torn muscles, it hurts. Dying hurts!” He can feels himself boil up again, bites off the rest of his tirade. Stands.

Stalks toward the door.

Parker tries to follow, but he puts her off with a brush of fingers against her jaw, a crooked smile. Alec hugs her to him as they let him go.

He needs to wash that fucking blood off.

+

He showers. He empties a trash bin, climbs onto the roof of his apartment building, ignores the animal fear clawing at this belly at the thought of heights, and burns his bloody clothes. There’s no saving them anyway.

Afterwards, he climbs into bed and just lies there, too tired to sleep as his body fixes the last damage done.

It should be routine, after so many centuries, the agony of living after death, but it never is because no death is like the other. Bullet wounds, stab wounds. Those barely stop him. Cuts take longer, phantom aches haunting him for days.

Starvation and dehydration and freezing, they take a long time to fade entirely, because there is so much damage to fix. His first death was starvation, forgotten in a rotting, stinking cellar, chained to the walls and left to the rats. He strangled himself just to escape it, eventually. He was lucky, so fucking lucky, that they didn’t just leave his body there forever, but threw him out with the waste, for the dogs to rip to shreds.

It took a long time to get over that.

Dying from hanging or suffocation or drowning. Those are bad, too.

Fire is worse.

Until today, he thought it was the worst because it just eats the body, until it feels like he’s nothing but a mind trapped inside ash, Sibyl of Cumae come again.

He knows better now. The impact of his body, twelve stories down, against unforgiving pavement, is the worst. His muscles twitch well into the night and the hum in his ears won’t go away.

Around three, the front door opens, then closes and Alec comes stumbling in, half asleep, steered by Parker. They climb into bed with him and hold him close and it’s better. He sleeps, for a while.

By morning he’s only sore all over, like a too hard workout, and he cooks them a breakfast fit for the kings and queens he once served (knives have many uses) and watches them eat, relaxing in increments. Eliot only cooks when he’s fine. He doesn’t take bad things into the kitchen.

By lunchtime, everything is okay again and Parker is putting his braids back into his hair one by one, painstaking attention to detail. Alec sits too close on the couch, putters around on his laptop, not really doing anything.

It’s fine. It’s peaceful. Eliot thinks he’s okay until his phone rings and Nate’s face flashes across the screen and he abruptly feels every bone breaking, every organ crushing under his own weight again. Bile rises and he stands too quickly, almost tipping Parker over the back of the couch, stalks away from the phone. When that doesn’t work, he grabs it and flings it into the nearest wall. It shatters.

He spins, he stalks, he spins again, he looks at the others, sitting, frozen. Snaps curses in half a dozen dead languages, hangs his head. “Sorry,” he says, too little, too late. “I just-.” Shakes his head. “I need some air.”

He leaves. Toes on his boots, grabs his wallet, and leaves without another word because he fell. He fell and fell and fell, for so long and he died and it hurt, it still hurts, in some parts of him and Nate let him. Nate let him because of the client, the job, the money.

After Damien, Eliot swore to never die for money again.

To hate himself less than the worst thing he ever did and not sell his body to the highest bidder anymore, to murder, or be murdered, to die and kill and hurt.

He swore.

+

He walks.

Boston is an old city by American standards, but it’s still built to a plan, not organic like cities in other countries. It’s too logical for him to lose himself in it.

He gets in a taxi and then on a train, doesn’t think, just, just moves. At the border he should be stopped, he has no passport, but the border patrol’s computer chirps and Eliot is bowed through with apologies.

He smiles at the nearest camera and doesn’t imagine the way it twitches up and down, almost like a nod. He buys a junker of a car in Mexico, drives it for days and still has no idea where he’s going.

South. Away from the Americas, from logic and hard steel lines. From tall buildings and a man who killed him for money when he swore-

He drives.

When the car dies, he walks to the nearest town and gets a room, sleeps for eighteen hours. Loses himself, finally, in streets of a city almost as old as him (lie). He palms a tourist’s phone, takes a picture of the sunset, texts it to Parker.

She sends back a link to a cat video and doesn’t ask when he’s coming home. If.

He sleeps again. He gets drunk and dreams of falling and he hates himself for the weakness, because it’s done with. It’s over. He’s fine, not a mark on him.

He’s died so many times and in so many bad ways. He’s been betrayed and aimed and slaughtered almost as much.

Why does this time matter?

After a week, he moves on, deeper inland, away from the coast and the tourists, to where people remember the languages that came before Spanish and Portuguese.

He drinks a lot, but doesn’t pick fights.

Parker sends him cat videos and Hardison activates the GPS on the stolen phone remotely at least once a day.

And then, one night, he shows up.

+

He’s smaller than he seems, slimmer than he was, but that might just be the absence of armor and cloak and fury. His hair is short and his eyes still glitter with that thing Eliot never quite managed to identify. Something between humor and spite, he thinks, as his old friend slides into the chair next to his like he’s always been there.

“Fancy meeting you here,” he drawls, with a Welsh accent as put-on and fake as everything else.

Eliot snorts because he has been able to feel the old man for hours, coming ever nearer at the speed of a moving car, meandering, aimless, and he knows the old man felt him, just the same. They keep their otherness close, usually, reel it in as far as it will go, but right now, Eliot doesn’t care who finds him and the old man – well. He stopped trying to figure him out a long, long time ago, just takes the random meetings and sly smiles with a shrug and a grin.

Bears them.

No other way to deal with Death, really.

“What brings you down here?” he asks.

Methos hums. “I buried a treasure around these parts a few centuries ago.” He looks around the cantina, like he might find it here. “Can’t quite remember where, though. I’m looking for landmarks. What about you?”

Eliot snarls. Involuntary sound. Stupid tell.

He should be over it by now.

“Died,” he says, switching languages to something older and less likely to be overheard. “Died badly.”

“You running?”

He studies Methos, the face that never changes, that damn glint in his eyes, the way he sits, boneless, harmless, like all the things he’s seen and done never touched him at all. He was already old when Eliot met him and he’s older now and still. Still.

“A man I trust let me be thrown off a rooftop for a bag full of cash.”

“Ah.” That’s all he says while he orders some local variant of chicken and a beer, leans back, watches the goings-on around them.

His food arrives and he offers some to Eliot, eats in silence, finishes his beer and orders another. They’ve known each other too long for the silence to be uncomfortable, and Eliot knows better than to expect the old man to be a fount of wisdom and sage advice, but he’s still a little disappointed. Which makes him angry in turn, which reminds him of falling, falling, falling, and how he should be over it by now.

His life is cheap. Why does this time matter?

Eventually, Methos taps a nail against the bottle of beer in his hand and says, “They don’t know what it feels like.”

“What what feels like?”

“Dying. You can describe it to them, you can fill novels with words and words, but they’ll never really understand until it happens to them and then it’s too late. They nod, and they hear, Eli, but they don’t listen. Can’t listen. They’d go mad, if they knew what was waiting for them, at their end.”

“And that makes it okay for me to be thrown off a roof?”

Methos drains his bottle. Shrugs. “I didn’t say that.”

“Some use you are,” Eliot gripes.

“I try not to be,” Death offers, conversationally, a wry twist to his lips. “So. Want to help me look for my treasure?”

+

They spend three weeks crawling through the jungle, digging the occasional hole near any landmark Methos thinks might be the one, before finally giving it up as a bad job and making bets about how long it will take some adventurous archeologist to dig it up instead.

Loser buys a beer.

They’re both aware that they’ll probably forget about the bet long before it comes due, but that’s not the point.

When Methos turns his car northward, Eliot waves off the offer of a ride and hitch hikes back to the coast where he studies a calendar very closely. It’s so easy to lose track without someone there to keep the days and month and years, to age as a visual reminder of time passing. He doesn’t want to go back and find that Alec and Parker have grown old in his absence. He gets little enough time with them that he doesn’t want to waste it.

The calendar says it’s been four months and his phone, when he finally turns it back on, is spammed with cat videos and a single text from Alec, saying, got a new job. Could use you, man.

And Eliot weighs Parker and Hardison and four months of cat videos and quiet surveillance against Nate not understanding just why he’s so mad, of falling, falling, falling and digging holes in the jungle for some treasure that has probably rotted away centuries ago.

He weighs it and he goes home.

+

“I’m sorry,” Nate says, the second Eliot enters the apartment.

“Welcome back,” Sophie smiles and hugs him.

“Did you watch my videos?” Parker demands and presses into his side.

Alec just holds out his fist and Eliot pumps it and says, to no-one in particular, “I don’t sell my body anymore. Not even for you guys.”

Nate smacks his lips. “I know. We all know. And I am sorry. Why… what made you decide to come back?”

You’ll die, Eliot thinks, and it’ll be terrible and painful and so new to you and I don’t want you to be alone. I don’t want to miss you before I have to.

He doesn’t say it.

They won’t understand it, if he tells them. No more than they understand what dying feels like because they live and then they die and then they’re done and he never is. It’s been over two thousand years since that cellar, since those chains, and he’s still not done and they can’t understand that. It’s why he loves them.

“Seven hundred sports channels,” he tells them instead, and it’s good enough.

Parker chuckles and Alec grins and both of them crowd him into the couch.

“Where did you go?” Parker wants to know.

Leaning his head back against Alec’s shoulders, feet on the table, Eliot grins. “Well, darling, I went treasure huntin’….”

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