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The Russian Roulette Job

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Nate wasn't nervous.

That was the first thing Eliot noticed as he stepped into the office-slash-briefing-room-slash-lair that was the new home of Leverage, Incorporated here in Portland in the back of Hardison's attempt at ruining a brewpub. They'd been based in Portland for no more than three months and already Eliot had utterly banned Hardison from choosing menus or even speaking to the kitchen staff about food. It was either that or risk Hardison's horrifically inedible brain-spasms actually being implemented.

If Hardison were allowed to contaminate the actual chef...Eliot didn't even want to think about it. He didn't lose sleep from bombs and plagues, but Hardison's no-that-isn't-food...that was another matter.

Eliot didn't have to glance around the room to know he and Nate were alone. Parker was out with Hardison doing something that made the Thief glow with happiness and Hardison shake in his shoes. Sophie was at her theater with her students. The whole group was between jobs, continuing to acclimate to the new city.

And yet Nate had called him.

The fact that Nate wasn't nervous set off low-grade alarm bells in Eliot's head.

Eliot didn't need to say anything to announce his presence – the day Nate Ford didn't notice somebody walking into an empty room, he'd be a dead man anyway. But Nate was already smiling that tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth he saved for the Hitter alone.

"That was quick."

Eliot shrugged and crossed to where Nate was perched on one of the stools at the working desk.

"Wasn't far away."

Nate nodded and pretended he didn't already know that Eliot had bought a place for himself within a mile of the brewpub. Pretended he didn't know that Eliot had timed exactly how long it would take him to run or drive to their base and to each person's main living place. Pretended he didn't know that Eliot was always, without fail, ready to drop anything and come at his call, at any of their calls. Even from the other side of the globe, if they needed him, Eliot would come.

And not just because he was their Hitter and it was his job. Not anymore.

Nate also pretended they didn't both know that part, too.

"I got a call from an old friend back in Boston."

Eliot frowned. "Trouble?"

"Yeah, but not the usual." Nate slid a folder across. "Remember them?"

Eliot opened the file to a very familiar pair of faces. There wasn't much that was outwardly memorable about John Connell, but even if the bland man's face hadn't been instantly recognizable, Eliot could never have forgotten Molly.

If I promise not to cry, will you just tell me the truth?

All right, this is not a drill. These guys are very bad guys, the guys that took you. Okay? But I'm coming for you, Molly. Me. And I'm gonna find you. Now, you tell me, does that sound like the truth?

Eliot, I'm scared.

He looked up. "Is she okay?"

"She's fine, at least right now." Nate nodded. "John Connell called. The Russians that he almost sold that chip to have been leaning on him."

Eliot growled. "It ain't his fault we got involved."

"No, but we stiffed them since we prevented the deal, and we got one of their lieutenants arrested." Nate gave a half-shrug. "Unsurprisingly, they're not taking it well."

"Nate." Eliot felt himself going still and cold, locked and ready to strike. "When Russians don't take it well, people die."

"I'm aware of that. And now, so is Connell." Nate didn't so much as flinch under Eliot's glare. "He called the FBI and he's working with them, but in the meantime, he's worried about his safety and Molly's."

"He should be. The Russians can get to them anywhere if they're not in protective custody."

"Right. So that's why he called." Nate leaned back a little, opening up his posture and muting his signals. "He doesn't trust the FBI to keep Molly safe. He wanted to know if you would come, just until he can arrange more permanent security. Maybe a couple of weeks at the most."

Eliot crossed his arms. "And what are you gonna do while I'm there? Nate, this team can't do its job without a Hitter."

"I know." Nate's deliberately bland expression and body language stayed neutral. "So I wouldn't take one. Unless something came up that was absolutely urgent. And I'd call you if that happened." Then he quirked an eyebrow. "Unless you'd want us to come out there with you."

"No way." Eliot frowned again. "This ain't a heist or a con, Nate. This is keeping killers at bay. You and them got no place in it."

"You're right." Nate's shrug was smooth. "But we'd back you up if you wanted us."

"Not a chance." Eliot's own face bent with a touch of amusement. "You can't con an assassin, Nate. Not even you. You can't grift a garrote or hack a drive-by. And I'd appreciate if you didn't try."

"Noted," Nate said.

"Connell's right – he and Molly aren't safe. And unless he can give the FBI more than a witness statement on a person they already have in custody, they won't go out of their way to protect the Connells."

"So, does that mean you're going?"

Eliot eyed Nate's odd neutrality. "What do you think?"

"I think you have to decide for yourself," Nate said. "This isn't about the team. It's not a con. If Connell had called when we were all on vacation, you could have taken the job on your own and we wouldn't even have known. I don't think this one's really up to me."

One side of Eliot's mouth twisted up in a smirk. "I never said it was. I asked you what you think."

Nate huffed and gave a tiny smile. "I think those Russians better watch out." But he leaned forward then and let a bit of tension creep back into his frame. "If you weren't going, I might go myself. Connell has no idea what he's dealing with."

"Neither would you, Nate."

"Fair enough," he allowed. "But just...watch yourself. Okay?"

Eliot snorted. "I've handled Russians before, Nate. So have you."

"Yeah, and I also remember you half-dead underneath a Tilt-A-Whirl." Nate looked Eliot straight in the eyes. "I know they'll be fine if you're watching over them. Just watch yourself, too."

Eliot was about to reply with something flippant, but stopped at what he could read in Nate's face; Nate wasn't overplaying his concern. This wasn't his 'con face.' This was genuine worry.

"All right, is there something you ain't telling me?"

Nate shook his head. "Not exactly. Just…" But he shook his head again. "Never mind."

"Hey." Eliot waited until Nate was looking at him again. "I'm gonna get this done. I'll keep Connell and Molly safe. And then I'll be back to keep you and the team safe. That's a promise. Okay?"

A shade of relief filtered into Nate's eyes. "Okay."

Eliot grabbed the folder and turned to go.

"Eliot."

He paused and looked back over his shoulder.

"Keep in touch."

"I will."

"And." Nate rose from his place, and his concern and his jokiness and all his general aloof air of being a Mastermind playing with chess pieces vanished – leaving only the man inside all of that who was the person Eliot followed, the person he had come to trust.

"If you need us, we'll come."

That was not the promise of a conman. Not the promise of a tactician. It was the promise of one man to another, of blood to blood. Of family, and loyalty, and bonds that had no words.

Those bonds had snagged them both, snagged them all, and it was the only tie that Eliot would rather die than break.

Eliot gave a single, sharp nod. Acknowledgement, understanding, even wry agreement. But he didn't speak. He didn't need to speak.

Eliot knew Nate could read every word in his heart.

-==OOO==-

Eliot called Nate the day he arrived in Massachusetts.

"The FBI's still got them staying in their house," he said, without so much as a 'hello' to begin the conversation. "Connell says they're set up next door, but that doesn't mean anything. I think maybe they're playing him."

"How so?" Nate was alone in his own apartment for once, and glad he didn't have to explain any part of this conversation to – or hide it from – Sophie. He started to pace, mind whirring at speed.

"I don't think they're really very interested in protecting him. I think they're using Connell as bait, maybe try and lure in a couple more Russian targets." Eliot's gravelly voice was low and furious.

Nate swallowed. "You need backup?"

"Not yet. I ain't been here long enough to see anything weird other than not nearly enough protection. If the FBI wanted to leave Connell swinging in the wind for the Russians, they're doing a good job of it."

Nate resisted the urge to swear. "How's Molly?"

"Scared," Eliot said. "She doesn't really know what's going on – her dad didn't tell her. He just said I'd be coming to stay for a little while and that everything would be fine."

Nate's instincts started to rattle. "Eliot, something's not right. If Molly were part of the FBI's case against the Russians, she would have given her statement already. She'd know about the investigation."

"Maybe her dad's keeping her out of it, then," Eliot said. "Maybe he didn't even report the kidnapping to them. It would make sense. Make her less of a target."

"Maybe." Nate couldn't help but concede the point, but his gut was roiling with uncertainty. "Look, I'm going to get Hardison to crack into the file, see what the FBI's got and what kind of team has been assigned. Just in case."

"You thinking they've been compromised?"

"I don't know. But something doesn't feel right. Give us a few days. Stay sharp, and call me every day, just in case."

"Will do."

Almost before Eliot ended the call, Nate was dialling Hardison's number.

"Hardison?"

"Hey, Nate! What's up? We got something?" Hardison sounded easy and relaxed. Nate could presume several things from that open, cheerful tone – that he was not, nor had he been recently, hanging off a building with Parker, that he was not neck-deep in a computer game that would cut his concentration in half for the foreseeable future, and that he was not too busy to drop everything. Which was exactly what Nate needed.

"Not we. I need you to meet me at the office."

"What for?"

Nate made himself smirk so Hardison would hear it. "How do you feel about breaking into the FBI's files today?"

Hardison chuckled. "Hey, any time I get to kick them up, hell yeah! Gimme ten minutes."

"I'm on my way. See you there. And Hardison?"

"Yeah?"

He tried to keep his words light, but he knew the undercurrent of warning would be there for someone who had learned to listen. "Do me a favor. Don't mention it to Parker if you can help it."

There was a beat of quiet before Hardison answered, voice much less amused. "Nate...what's going on?"

"Hopefully nothing. Meet me there and I'll fill you in."

-==OOO==-

Nate left Hardison typing frantically and cursing under his breath at whatever digital resistance he met after the first ten hours. He had learned in the past few years that there were only two kinds of success in hacking – success after the first ten minutes, or success only after the first three days of work straight. There never seemed to be any sort of in-between.

Then again, that's how the whole team worked in their respective fields. Parker could either steal something so quick even Nate couldn't track it, or she needed hours or even days. Sophie could con a mark in the first breath or only after weeks of setup. Eliot could clear opponents from the field in the first flurry of blows, or only after a gruelling battle.

But, just as with all those situations, Nate knew they all did better when he was there to lend support – and when they were working for one another. So he kept Hardison company until long after the brewpub closed, though he did grab the last specials of the night before the kitchen shut down. Nate picked at a grilled sandwich half-heartedly; Hardison, he was sure, didn't even remember inhaling his own between furious lines of code and creative insults of people's life choices.

Sandwich gone and Hardison set up with enough snacks and orange soda to keep him going for a week straight, Nate decided to take a walk. He didn't go far, in case Hardison did find something, but he went up to the roof of the building above where Leverage, Incorporated made their home. It afforded a pretty good view of the river, lit up with streetlights and passing cars like spots of flame upon the water.

Leaning on a railing, Nate did some mental math. He knew Eliot had set out from the airport on a stupidly-early morning flight that got him into Boston around midday. He'd called Nate a couple of hours after that, presumably upon doing a first sweep of the situation. By now, midnight on the west coast, Eliot was probably already waking up for his pre-dawn security checks.

Nate considered that he ought to go to bed. Eliot was three hours ahead of them now – calling for a status update at a reasonable time meant morning, and Nate wasn't the most morning-eager person on good days.

But he couldn't stop the thoughts that chased each other around his head. The problem was that any time he pivoted away from Eliot and the Connells, he had to think about the jobs they weren't doing with the Hitter away, or the jobs that were still looming in their future. There were so many loose ends out there. People who had become enemies, people who might have a vested interest in their downfall, people who would be gunning for them.

Honestly, Nate wasn't sure if he was more worried about the whole rest of the team in Portland without the Hitter, or the Hitter alone in Boston without the team.

But Eliot had never shied away from going where he was needed, in spite of the price on his head. Nate knew for sure there were four countries and three different terrorist groups that wanted his Hitter dead or alive – and those were only the ones he knew about. Nate felt a rush of relief that Eliot was alone in such infamy; everybody else might be wanted by the legal authorities, but at least nobody was sitting under a dangling death sentence waiting for it to fall.

Nervous again, Nate abandoned the night air and slipped back inside. The building that housed the brewpub was still and empty with the public areas closed. The private areas of the building, the condos that Hardison had purchased along with the rest of it, were mostly vacant; other than Hardison's own, the only other condo with a tenant was Parker's. And since Nate hadn't seen so much as a shadow of the girl today, he could only guess – with mixed fear and admiration – what she had been doing with her time.

He wondered again if he should move in upstairs, too. On the one hand, it did mean pulling himself even closer to this team, these people who had become his friends and family and a hundred things that didn't have words. On the other, it meant he would be near when they needed him the most.

He was just weighing the question for the tenth time when his phone ringed. And not Hardison's happy pop-song ringtone. It was playing "Thunderstruck."

Nate answered on the second ring. "Eliot?"

"Nate!"

Nate froze. He could hear crashing sounds, wood splintering, muffled and not-so-muffled shouting. Eliot's breath was coming in ragged gasps that reminded Nate all too much of how Eliot had been winded after Sterling sent Quinn to take him down. But what arrested his attention the most was the anger, desperation, and fury in his voice.

"Eliot! What is it?"

"It's a set-up, Nate! There was no FBI! Connell played us! He's working for the Russians!"

Nate wanted to ask why. He wanted to ask how Connell could possibly have thought working for the people who kidnapped his daughter was a good idea, and why he would lure Eliot into a trap. He wanted answers, insight, facts.

But he didn't have time for any of that.

"I'll call Bonanno," Nate said. "Just hold out as long as you can."

"Stop." Eliot sucked in a breath and Nate could hear the pain that went with it. "There's no point."

The storm of fear that washed through Nate was so deep, another man might have drowned. But Nathan Ford did not drown, not when his team, his friends, his family, not when they needed him. He soared.

"Eliot. Listen to me. We will come for you. Just hang on. Okay?"

It wasn't okay, it couldn't ever be okay. But it was the only promise Nate could make to his Hitter, his confidant, his right-hand everything.

"No, Nate." Eliot was gathering command of his breathing again, and he growled low and serious. "Then there'll be five bodies instead of just one. Don't...don't throw away your life and their lives. Not for me."

"Eliot!"

"I didn't call you to get you out here where you can all get killed. I called you because you need to know Connell is dirty. Don't trust him. But don't come out here. They ain't even gonna look for you. I'll make sure of it."

"Eliot, listen!"

"Take care of them, Nate." The words sounded like they hurt to say, but not the pain of flesh and blood. A keener, darker pain Nate had seen in Eliot only a handful of times. "This ain't your fault. You didn't do this. You didn't…what you did... I was dead. Before you and the team. I was dead. I just...I need you to know. What you gave me...I can't ever repay it."

There was a crash and a frightened cry, high and thin.

"I gotta go. Keep them safe. If there's a way out, I'll find it. And I'll come back. If not...thanks. For being my reason to live."

"Eliot!"

There was the sound of an explosion – and then nothing.

Chapter Text

Eliot looked up at the house he had last seen through a swollen eye and a concussion. In the noon sunlight, it seemed just as ostentatious as it had back then, if slightly less cold.

But, then, if Connell had reformed in the wake of his daughter's near-kidnapping, it probably was less cold, less a monument to grief and more to the people living in it. Close calls tended to bring out the humanity in people.

Either that, or it eradicated any that was left.

Eliot opted not to think too hard about which was more true of himself.

Old habits still strong, Eliot had parked the dumpy car – bought from the first internet ad that would accept cash he could find in Boston since his Charger remained in Oregon – around the block from the house. It was actually situated on the street behind the Connell house, so he would only need to get through a pair of fences and yards to reach it if necessary.

Eliot wished he could have concealed his arrival a little better, but without involving a second person, it was hard to arrange a standard switch – pretend to be a delivery guy and get someone else to leave in his place. Parker would have pulled some kind of vanishing act, appearing in the house without anyone seeing her and giving no explanation as to how she did it. Maybe Hardison would've delivered himself by drone or something equally geeky.

But they weren't here, so Eliot did things Eliot's way – the complete opposite of subtle.

Eliot marched up the front steps, overnight-bag on one shoulder, rang the doorbell, and planted himself on the porch, scanning the neighborhood and daring anybody to peek out their blinds at him.

The door opened after the sound of several locks clicking to a harried-looking John Connell.

"Wow. You really just did that."

"Deterrents don't work if you don't know they're there," Eliot said, still glaring along every sight-line and vantage point. "Anybody comes here, they'll know what's gonna happen to them."

John cleared his throat. "Okay. Well, whenever you're ready…" He stepped aside.

Eliot spared one last glare, a dire, test-me-and-die version for the house next door, then followed Connell into the house. He noted at once the extra security and approved of the heavy door bar that had been added. That was good for keeping people out – assuming they came in the door.

"Had any trouble lately?"

Connell swallowed, then shook his head. "No. Not since I called." He collected himself with a visible effort. "Thank you for coming so quickly."

Eliot simply nodded, his attention on the sound of footsteps.

"Eliot!"

His stern expression melted at the smile that raced towards him, and almost without knowing he was going to do it, Eliot caught Molly in a hug.

"Heya Botasky."

"Hi Perky!" Molly drew back, grinning. "You remembered!"

"Buddy of mine made me read it." He couldn't quite bring himself to verbalize the ridiculous title which had kept Parker amused for the better part of a week. Eliot grimaced and looked up at John. "Do you have any idea what goes on in that thing?"

"Uh, no?" John looked between them. "Should I?"

"Yeah."

"It's not that bad," Molly said.

"It gave my friend nightmares."

"Seriously?"

Eliot nodded. He looked back at Molly. "And he's a grown man, sort of. Exactly how old are you?"

Molly shrugged, unrepentantly. "Old enough to download a bootleg copy if anything happens to my originals."

John huffed a laugh. "I think I've created a monster."

"The digital apple doesn't fall far from the tree, dad. And neither does the PC."

Eliot snorted. "I hate computer nerds."

"I can tell." Molly almost managed to say it with a straight face – Sophie would have been proud. "So, dad, where's Eliot gonna sleep? Spare room one, two, or three?"

Eliot shook his head. "None of the above, kiddo."

Her face fell, and Eliot could see an edge of fear creeping into her eyes – no, a return to fear.

"But I thought you were staying over for a while?"

"I am," he said quickly. "But I won't sleep much. I can keep going for days if I have to. Just give me a chair and a nap and I'll be good to go."

"Molly, why don't you take Eliot upstairs and show him where to put his things. He can have the room next to you, okay?"

Eliot didn't need Molly to show him the way – he'd memorized the layout of the place during the job, of course – but he followed her anyway. He noted a few small changes to the house since he'd been there last, mostly in that it was no longer under construction and there was a lot more visible security, from polycarbonate windows to an internal alarm system complete with regular motion detectors and cameras.

Molly pushed open a door to a spare room that was more elaborate than Eliot's whole apartment in Portland and leaned on the doorjam while he dropped his bag on the bed.

"So, no voices in your ear this time?" she asked.

"Nope. Just me."

"Too bad. That was fun." Molly glanced around the room for a bit, a nerve-gathering tactic Eliot could have read from across the street. "So...what are you and my dad up to, anyway?"

That was a surprise and Eliot rummaged in his bag to hide his expression. "He didn't tell you?"

"No. He just said you were coming over for a while. And that things would be fine."

Eliot could hear her rolling her eyes, so he turned back. "Something wrong with that?"

"No." She gave one of her dramatic sighs. "Except that's all he says when I ask him anything. I can't go hang out with friends, I can't go to the mall or the movies, but everything's fine." Eliot saw her hand twitch, as if she wanted to grab onto something, hold onto something for security. "And now you're here. So it's clearly not 'fine.' But whatever. He won't tell me."

Eliot considered her for a minute. "You sure you want to know?"

It wasn't an offer he made lightly. But Molly had handled the kidnapping well, all things considered. She had been scared, but fear was natural, even healthy in that situation. She'd kept her head, remembering to use the earbud when she was alone and then dropping a vital clue to Eliot that she knew he would remember but would be meaningless to her captors.

Also, Eliot had seen she had a pretty good set of instincts for when he was telling her the truth. This would be a really long few days if he had to try to lie to her at every turn, and probably get hassled for it every chance she got.

Molly nodded and moved into the room, perching on a rocking chair in the corner. "I won't tell dad I know, I promise."

"I know you won't." Eliot leaned against the bed and faced her, keeping his ears alert for John coming upstairs after them. "The short version is that your dad is helping the authorities track down some bad people, and he asked me to come keep an eye on you."

"So…" Molly considered him. "This is, what? Witness Protection? That kind of thing?"

"Sorta."

"But you're not with the FBI or anybody." She stopped. Frowned. "Are you?"

"Nope."

"Huh." Then, "Is this about those guys who moved in next door?"

Eliot raised an eyebrow. "Maybe. What do you know about them?"

"Well, they keep their blinds down a lot. And dad goes over there to talk to them sometimes, but he doesn't let me go with him. Plus, the property ownership documentation online says it was bought by a Barry McElroy, and that is the fakest fake name I've ever heard."

Eliot nodded and filed the name away for later – it would make for a fantastic deliberately-fake cover. "Pretty good, Botasky. So, who do you think they are?"

Molly thought about it, then said, "Somebody who doesn't want to be seen? But they're not very good at it."

Eliot filed that information away and made a mental note to call Nate soon. "Well, whoever they are, they won't get past me." He held her gaze, pinning her with the same steady look he'd given soldiers and bystanders and even his teammates sometimes. The one that practically forced the person on the other end of it to calm down and listen and trust. "I'm gonna look out for you, Molly. You and your dad. Until we figure this all out. Okay? Does that sound like the truth?"

"Yeah." Molly gave him a small smile. "Okay, so, now what? Do we sneak around and try to read their mail? Tap their phones?"

"Not right away, short stuff. For now, we'll just keep an eye on things. Surveillance, if done right, is slow and boring...until it isn't."

Molly pushed to her feet, setting the chair to rocking. "Great. More boring." Then her eyes lit up. "Hey, have you read Maus yet?"

Eliot had a bad feeling about this. "Mouse?"

"Yeah! I'll grab it and you can read it while we're being boring!" She darted to her room and Eliot could hear a pile of books scattering in her wake.

Eliot closed up his bag and muttered to himself, "First rabbits, now mice. At least it can't possibly be any darker than the last one."

One look at the cover of the slim book Molly thrust into his hands sent that hope spiralling into oblivion.

-==OOO==-

Eliot managed to call Nate for a brief conversation under the pretense of checking the back door. As soon as he hung up the phone, he felt better about things. He didn't want the team anywhere near whatever disaster this simple guard job was going to turn into, but it was reassuring to have the combined brainpower of Nate Ford and Alec Hardison on his side – even if he'd rather eat a fork, tines first, than admit that to the Hacker.

Then he did a full sweep of the house, noting the locations of all the security devices and any spots that were blind to them. He also poked his head into the closet which led to the safe room, but didn't bother to get Connell or Molly to open it for him; he was just reassured it was still as secure as ever.

Checking for provisions led to the discovery that John Connell clearly had no idea what to do with food, if the stack of frozen pizzas in the freezer was any indication – he ate about as well as Hardison on a bad day.

Which turned into an impromptu cooking lesson for Molly and his speech about knives, though he left out the bit about how to slice Yakuza with them. Molly was easily entertained watching him chop through forgotten vegetables and combine them with spices he found in the back of a cupboard which had been taken over by fast food menus.

Connell joined them just as Eliot's frittata was done and the honey-glazed vegetables came off the stove. Eliot got Molly to set the table and put a large pile of food in front of them both.

Molly was a growing kid who needed more than pizza and soda, and John Connell was increasingly demonstrating to Eliot that he was barely holding on by a thread. If he were any more spooked, he would be a jackrabbit. Eliot half expected the man to collapse in a nervous fit – or lock himself in the safe room and refuse to come out.

Which was strange, actually. Eliot tuned out the cheerful banter about 'real men who cook' that passed between father and daughter and studied Connell more closely. He teased Molly in a way that felt natural, but he was more on edge now than he had been when Eliot arrived. And it could be for any number of reasons, but it added another piece to the puzzle that was this whole situation and Eliot did not like it.

Maybe Connell was just nervous that Eliot would come clean about the situation with Molly.

Maybe he was worried that the FBI would find out Eliot had come and make trouble.

Maybe something had happened in the last two hours.

Too many variables, not enough facts. Eliot didn't like it at all.

He considered calling Nate again, but decided against it. If Nate were here, he could read Connell's body language for himself and maybe come up with something. If he were here, he would see a hundred angles that were hidden to Eliot who was too close to the situation to back up and take a broader view. Without Nate here, all Eliot could report was 'stuff is even hinkier than it was,' and that was not useful intel.

Connell and Molly washed the dishes while Eliot prowled about the house some more, then settled down in the entertainment room to watch movies. Eliot didn't bother joining them, instead positioning himself with his back to a wall and line-of-sight to three different points of vulnerability. The tension in the room was too thick to be cut with a chainsaw, between Connell's absurd levels of discomfort, Molly needing every ounce of self-discipline not to ask about it, and Eliot's watchfulness. Even an empty action movie full of explosions was tame in comparison.

After two action films that Eliot honestly could not have told apart except by the fact that one was being advised by someone with a background in munitions disposal due to some very distinctive explosions, Molly and John ate bowls of ice cream and headed to bed. And it was only because Eliot was fully keyed-up that he didn't get a spoonful of ice cream in his hair courtesy of Molly.

He did toss an ice cube down her back in revenge, though.

"Uh...if anything happens…" John began, hesitating in the upstairs hallway beside his own room.

Eliot glanced to where Molly was not-so-subtly leaning out her bedroom door to listen. "I'll cover you. Get Molly and get into that safe room and call for help."

"But what if…?"

"You'll be fine," Eliot said. "They won't even come in range of you. Either of you."

John Connell nodded. "Thanks. And, uh, goodnight." And he went into his room and shut the door.

Eliot fought the urge to roll his eyes and tromped down the hallway to Molly. "You hear enough, Botasky?"

She pouted. "No. Why won't he tell me?"

"He doesn't want you to be scared." Eliot could see past the brave front she had put up all day to the kid who had tearfully whispered his name over comms from the carnival House of Mirrors. She was brave, no doubt, but she was also scared. "Look. Same deal for you. If you hear me yelling, you get out of bed and down to that safe room. And you stay there. I'll come get you when it's safe."

"You promise?"

"Promise."

She made an impish smile and held up a hand.

Eliot scowled. "I swear to god if you try to make me pinky swear, you're going to find syrup in your PJs, kid."

Molly grinned and put both hands behind her back with exaggerated innocence. "Fine! I won't!"

Eliot turned to go back downstairs. "Go to sleep. And no more disturbing reading material. Seriously. What's wrong with you?"

"What's wrong with you?" she shot back. "Goodnight Eliot!" she practically sang at him before shutting her door.

Eliot hmphed at her and pretended he didn't smile all the way downstairs.

-==OOO==-

Later, Eliot would blame his over-reliance on his team for the lapse in judgement. He had become so used to having others there who could watch for problems or spot behavior that didn't fit, he was a little out of practice watching and cataloging micro-expressions on his own. When he found John Connell in the kitchen sometime after 3am with a glass and a bottle of whiskey, he only nodded to the man, reminded comfortingly of Nate.

He was at the front of the house when he heard the distinctive sound of a lock sliding back.

Eliot spun, already moving towards the kitchen. "Connell! What are you – ?"

A crowd of armed Russians burst into the house. They ran past John Connell who stood damningly beside the unsecured door.

They ran for Eliot.

Eliot turned and climbed the stairs taking them three at a time, yelling. "Molly!"

Molly opened her bedroom door just as there was a crash of glass from inside her room. She cried out.

Eliot reached her in three steps and wrapped an arm around her, pulling her just out of the reach of someone big and menacing. Eliot rolled with his momentum for the nearest door, which happened to be a bathroom. He flung them inside and slammed the door shut, leaning against it with all his weight.

"Eliot! What's going on? Where's my dad?"

"Sorry, kiddo." He peered around before his gaze landed on some kind of ornate, iron towel stand. He grabbed it and shoved it against the door, wedging it into place with the sink vanity. The door shuddered as someone pounded on it, but held.

"Get in the bathtub," Eliot said. "And cover your head."

He wanted to find something to put over her – she was so terribly vulnerable with only glass shower doors between her and danger – but he had one thing he had to do first. While he turned to the little window in the room, checking it with one hand for structural integrity, he pulled out his phone with the other and dialed without looking.

"Nate!"

"Eliot! What is it?"

"It's a set-up, Nate! There was no FBI! Connell played us! He's working for the Russians!"

Eliot knew he didn't imagine the shock that quickly turned to determination in Nate's voice. "I'll call Bonanno. Just hold out as long as you can."

"Stop." Eliot sucked in a breath. "There's no point."

"Eliot. Listen to me. We will come for you. Just hang on. Okay?"

Eliot couldn't admit the warmth that certainty, that loyalty, that devotion lit in his gut. A promise like that from Nate Ford was better than the word of honor of most of the so-called heroes Eliot had ever met. But he couldn't let Nate walk into this, couldn't let him bring the team into a kill-box like this.

"No, Nate. Then there'll be five bodies instead of just one. Don't...don't throw away your life and their lives. Not for me."

The window wasn't made to open, but Eliot could fix that if needed. The problem was that Molly would fit out it, but he wouldn't. And that was a long drop to the ground. He needed another plan.

"Eliot!"

"I didn't call you to get you out here where you can all get killed. I called you because you need to know Connell is dirty. Don't trust him. But don't come out here. They ain't even gonna look for you. I'll make sure of it."

"Eliot, listen!"

"Take care of them, Nate." Then, because he knew the guilt that Nate would feel, knew this would open a wound that was only just beginning to heal, he added, "This ain't your fault. You didn't do this. You didn't…what you did... I was dead. Before you and the team. I was dead. I just...I need you to know. What you gave me...I can't ever repay it."

There was a loud crash as the door started to crack and Molly cried out.

"I gotta go. Keep them safe. If there's a way out, I'll find it. And I'll come back. If not...thanks. For being my reason to live."

He dropped the phone and turned back to face whoever came through that door.

He didn't expect it to be a flashbang grenade shoved through a fist-sized hole.

Eliot's body reacted without even consulting him. He knew flashbangs weren't generally lethal, but he also knew they could kill in close proximity and could maim just as easily. And there was Molly, lying in a tub behind a wall of thin shower glass.

Eliot threw himself on top of her as light and noise exploded around him.

Even before the afterimage faded from his eyes, Eliot erupted upwards, bracing for the attack that was coming through the door. He kicked at the shower glass, sending shards of it at the crowd that had dislodged his barricade. But he was outnumbered and backed into a corner without a lot of room to swing. And Molly was crying.

He dropped two opponents before someone rammed him with the towel rack and threw him off balance against the toilet. Eliot recovered quickly, but the damage was done.

Because Molly wasn't in the tub anymore.

Eliot blinked furiously, willing his eyes to focus.

Molly hung in the grip of a much larger man, and he had her in a lethal choke-hold. The man was saying something, but Eliot's ears were still ringing. However, he could read the man's lips to understand the threat well enough.

"Unconscious to dead in thirty more seconds. Your choice."

He didn't have to do the math. He knew all about deoxygenated blood and restricted bloodflow to the brain and pressure points. If it were one guy, even one well-trained guy, he could break through and reach her in time. But more were piling into the bathroom, climbing over the bodies of their beaten comrades.

He couldn't take the risk.

Eliot raised his hands in surrender.

"Good choice."

Eliot was roughly yanked out of the bathroom into the hallway. Molly was stirring slightly, but, though the man had shifted his grip to be less dangerous, she was still helpless in his arms. John Connell stood behind him in a crowd of what must be thirty members of the Russian mob.

"Connell." Eliot made sure his voice grated as low and deep as possible. "You'll pay for this."

"No, Eliot Spencer. You are payment." The man with Molly gestured and someone produced a water bottle. The cap's seal was broken and the water inside was distinctly cloudy.

"Drink it all." The man put a fist around Molly's throat. "Now."

Eliot gave John Connell his darkest, most malicious, death-glare as he chugged the water in a few swift swigs. The carfentanil's distinctive taste felt heavy in his mouth. He had only just finished swallowing when the world tilted badly sideways. Eliot knew he had only moments of useful consciousness left before the drug pulled him into grey clouds.

"Tell your boss," Eliot said, and he was already slurring, "he should've killed me instead."

"Oh, no." The man holding Molly smiled. "You're worth much more to us alive."

Chapter Text

Nate charged into the office at full speed, bellowing. "Hardison!"

Hardison looked up from his desk, eyes wide. "Nate? What's…?"

Nate spotted Parker appearing from out of nowhere, suddenly perched on the couch and tying knots in a length of rope.

"Parker. Call Sophie. Wake her up. Tell her to get ready. We'll pick her up on the way."

Parker, bless her forever, saw his frantic panic and simply obeyed, though her eyes widened.

Nate didn't stop his movement until he was at Hardison's side. "We need a flight to Boston. Now. Not tomorrow, not in an hour. Now."

Hardison blinked at him, but turned to his computer. "Probably nothing available commercially, but I can charter us a plane if you want."

"Do it. And get your go-bag."

"Nate?" Parker called. "Sophie wants to know what's going on, too."

Nate pounded a fist into Hardison's desk. "A bunch of Russian mobsters just attacked Eliot." He let out a breath and his dropped his head, his shoulders falling into a slump. "I heard an explosion."

If he had screamed it at the top of his lungs, it could not have cut through the air more than his quiet panic and tense fear. And that, more than his words, was what put the dread into Hardison and Parker like cold leaching through their skin.

Eliot was unbeatable. Eliot was the one member of the team who never broke, never gave in, never ran out of options. He was the one who made options, created openings, secured avenues for the rest of them. Nate could have declared that the Tooth Fairy had asked him on a date and that would be more credible than the possibility of Eliot actually being defeated.

But Nate's fear and certainty were a statement of fact that could contradict all other reality.

Hardison managed to speak first. "I'll have a jet waiting by the time we get to the airport."

That spurred Parker into motion. "I'll get the go-bags. I've already got one ready for you and Sophie up in my room." She darted off, sticking her phone into her pocket without another word to Sophie.

Any other time, Nate would have been amused. Of course Parker would have spare go-bags for the others. Of course. And probably filled with their own items pilfered out of their respective apartments and never missed or noticed. They all took care of the team in different ways, and this was just hers.

Hardison finished making the arrangements and bolted from the desk, shoving laptops into bags with little care. But as he did, he glanced up.

"Nate, if Eliot's in trouble, shouldn't we call Bonanno? Or the regular police?"

Nate had already considered it. He'd offered it to Eliot, too, but heard more in the Hitter's refusal than what had been said. And that was before the explosion.

"If we do, they'll make the whole place a crime scene," he said. "We won't be able to get close. And...depending on what exactly happened, we're going to need to be able to operate without dancing around them if we can help it."

"Nate, what happened? Why was Eliot in Boston dealing with the mob?"

Nate shook himself and straightened up. "I'll tell you on the way." Then he met Hardison's eyes and pinned the Hacker with a look he had worn rarely over the years they'd known one another.

It was the look of a man on the warpath. The look he wore at the dam facing off against the two men who had killed his father.

"Brace yourself. This one is going to be bad."

-==OOO==-

The first hour on the plane involved Nate explaining where Eliot had gone and why and reciting all the information Eliot had shared in the two phone calls. He was forced to exactly repeat Eliot's words twice for Sophie, who started quietly mulling over the language and looking for hidden meanings and nuance. Hardison split his attention between continuing the hack on the FBI and checking the police records for anything that looked like a call to Fire-and-Rescue at the Connell residence.

But Parker sat and stared at Nate until he could only raise his eyebrows at her and wait.

"Why aren't you planning?"

"Excuse me?"

"You." Parker wrinkled her nose at him. "You're not planning. That's not Planning Face. So what are you doing?"

Nate dipped his head, acknowledging her insight. "Trying to decide something. I'll tell you what it is when I decide. Okay?"

"Fair enough." And she went to sit with Hardison and keep him calm and focused while he crawled through the internet with frantic energy.

In the last hour of the flight, Nate cleared his throat. "Okay, guys."

The other three stopped what they were doing and looked up. Sophie had been pretending to read the same magazine for two hours and set it aside without another glance. Hardison and Parker abandoned their seats at the rear of the little jet to perch beside him.

"Eliot said Connell betrayed him, that this was a setup from the beginning. And he also said he didn't want me bringing you into it."

"Yes, and look how well you listened," Sophie said.

He ignored her. "We need to know what happened and we need to know why Connell did what he did. But after that, we'll have to make a decision."

He paused. Took a breath.

"If we haven't heard from Eliot by the time we get our answers, do we still go after him?"

"Of course we do!" Parker said.

"Yeah, man," Hardison said. "I know Eliot can handle anything, but we don't leave a man behind."

But Sophie was studying Nate more closely. "What are you afraid of, Nate?"

"Eliot had a point," Nate said, looking between them. "We've conned the Irish mob a couple of times, and a few others like them, but we've never fought them. We might find ourselves in the middle of something we can't grift or hack or steal our way out of. What then?"

He let them consider that question for a few moments.

Sophie leaned towards him, not touching him, but making her presence known. "What do you think?"

"I think…" Nate stopped. Remembered a warehouse filled with men with guns and his promise to Eliot. They don't need to know what I did. "I think Eliot would walk into hell on broken legs for us. I think he would shred his soul if we needed him."

He looked up, meeting their eyes one at a time.

"So if he's in hell now, if he needs help...I can't ask any of you to come with me. But I'm not leaving him there. No matter the consequences."

"You understand that might mean putting yourself in danger," Sophie said. "Or doing something...something unforgivable."

Nate could feel her thinking about the gun he had almost turned on Dubenich and Latimer.

He smiled, and it was a very not-nice smile.

"You know what Eliot said to me? He told me that when you kill someone, you actually kill two different people. The other guy, and the person you used to be."

The weight of their eyes on his shoulders made him straighten up.

"And if that's what it takes to save Eliot...or to save any of you...that's a price I'm willing to pay."

Nate rose, surprising all three.

"But you have to decide for yourselves if it's a price you can live with. Let me know when we land if you want to walk away."

And he retreated to the far end of the cabin.

Ten seconds later, Parker sat down beside him.

"Now you have Planning Face," she said.

Hardison joined them. "So what's the plan?"

Nate looked at them both, and he gave himself a moment to revel in the staunch courage and loyalty they had – not just to him, but to each other.

Then he looked up at Sophie, who had moved to a spot just behind Hardison's shoulder. "You're not walking away? What happened to 'don't get involved with a murderer?'"

Sophie shook her head. "That was revenge. Pointless. And you'd never survive it." She put a hand on Hardison's shoulder and leaned around him, just shy of what could almost be an invisible group hug. "This? Honestly, I don't know if any of us will survive it if we don't get him back. And this isn't about revenge."

"This is family."

The words, so simple, came from Parker almost reflexively, like a sneeze. Then she looked around, suddenly unsure.

"That's what you're all thinking, right?"

Nate nodded, smiling.

"That's exactly what we're thinking."

-==OOO==-

Whatever Nate expected at the Connell house, it wasn't quiet. In spite of the fact that Hardison couldn't find even so much as a call into 911 from the neighborhood, Nate thought for sure there must be something to show what had happened. But the house stood, oddly teal and huge and serene, as if it hadn't been the scene of something with the potential to rip his team apart.

Nate had prepared six different plans to get into the house, but now that he was looking at it, he threw them all away without a second thought.

"Let's go."

He rose out of the car Parker had 'acquired' for them and strode up the front steps, everyone else falling in behind him. At the door, he tried the knob and hated that it turned easily, unlocked and swinging open.

The front room looked more like a warzone, and Nate found that somewhat comforting. The evidence of many people and much confusion was everywhere, from tipped over tables and shattered picture frames to a few spots of blood on the rug.

Nate saw it all, but it barely registered.

The only thing that mattered was the figure he could see at the far end of the house in the kitchen, sitting at the table beside a mostly-empty bottle of whiskey.

Nate would never remember charging through the house. He would never recall if he yelled or swore or moved like a silent predator. The thing he did remember was the feeling of John Connell's shirt in his hands, and the satisfying sound the man made when he hit the wall.

"What did you do?" Nate roared. He stalked to where he'd thrown Connell and hauled him up, pinning him against the wall and pressing his fists into the man's windpipe. "Answer me!"

"Hardison," Parker said quietly behind him, "pull the house security cameras. We'll need them."

Nate looked into John Connell's face, finally noting that it was red and blotchy and there was the clear indication of a bad punch to his jaw. Nate could only hope it was put there by Eliot.

Sophie appeared at Nate's elbow. Nate spared her enough of a glance to warn her off stopping him or reining him in.

But Sophie ignored Nate entirely, her eyes only for Connell.

"Where's Molly, John?"

And John Connell started to blubber.

If anything, the man's distress angered Nate more. He pulled back only to shove Connell into the wall again.

"You better tell me what the hell went on here or…"

"Nate, duck."

Those words, said in Parker's calm voice, cut through Nate's haze of rage and he let go of Connell and moved aside just as an entire gallon of milk was upended over Connell's head.

Connell dropped to the expensive floor, half slipping on milk, coughing with surprise.

Nate eyed Parker, who shrugged. "He stopped crying, didn't he?"

Nate gave her a dark smile. "Get some ice water, in case we need to do that again."

"On it."

Nate leaned down to the now-sopping Connell and arranged his face into something cool and distant and almost pleasant. And given that he was still practically vibrating with anger, it was apparently even scarier than shouting, because Connell started to talk.

"It was...the Russians said I owed them. Because of the chip. But I didn't have anything...I tried. I offered them anything...my company or money or...but they said I owed them. And they told me...Eliot Spencer had a price on his head… So I called you. They told me...if I gave them Spencer...they'd leave me alone."

"But they didn't, did they?" Sophie asked, and Nate was sure he'd never heard her sound that cold before.

Connell shook his head.

"They...they choked her. And after they drugged Eliot...they said...they said…"

"I got it."

Everyone turned to where Hardison was holding a laptop. He turned it towards them and they could see the upstairs hallway packed full of men in dark clothing, with one holding Molly and four restraining Eliot. No, not restraining, Nate realized. Supporting. Eliot was concussed or unconscious or something, but he was clearly in no position to fight anybody.

"Run it," Nate said.

Hardison turned up the sound on his speakers.

"...it's done, right?" Connell was asking. "You got what you came for."

"For now." The man holding Molly gestured with his head and someone else appeared to take her from him. He advanced on Connell. "But now begins your real work."

"What-what do you mean? I gave you what you wanted!"

The man punched Connell in the face, dropping him. He waited until one of his goons yanked Connell back to his feet to answer.

"This is payment for what you owe us for your broken deal," he said. "But now there is a new deal."

"Wh-what?"

"You do not simply pay us and walk away, John Connell. That is not how we do business. Now you belong to us. And you will do as we say."

"I…"

"Dad?"

All attention shifted as Molly started blinking and moving around, as much as the goon holding her would allow. She gasped as she saw Eliot.

"What's going on?"

"It's okay, pumpkin. It's going to be fine."

"Yes," the Russian said, turning back to Connell. "It is. Now, here is our new bargain. You will go back to work like a good little businessman. In a few days, we will contact you with a request. You will do as you are told. In exchange, we will not harm your lovely little daughter."

Nate missed whatever happened immediately thereafter as his vision whited out in rage. But he managed to make himself focus in time to see the Russian gesture to his men to carry Eliot downstairs.

"Dad!" Molly called.

"You let her go!" Connell fought against the man who held him, but he might as well have been flailing against stone.

"She will be safe enough," the Russian said, "as a down-payment. When you complete your task, she will be returned."

Molly reached out and kicked the nearest guy in the shins.

Nate watched the Russian in charge slap her and hated himself for being grateful that it was only a slap, and only enough to daze, rather than anything worse.

"Behave, little girl. I would not like to have to return you to your home without a few fingers and toes."

"Molly, just do as he says," John Connell said, voice shaking. "You promise me you won't hurt her?"

"Unless she leaves me no choice, yes." The Russian leaned close to Molly and said something too low for the camera to pick up, but whatever it was started her crying.

"Now." The Russian held out a hand and someone gave him a water bottle. "Drink some. Not all of it. You are not an elephant like him." He jerked his head down the stairs where Eliot had disappeared.

Molly took a few sips, visibly shaking.

Hardison paused the video. "And then they left. That's it."

Nate turned back to John Connell. "You stupid son of a bitch. Now they own you for life, you and Molly. Once you do whatever they ask, they'll have blackmail on you. You'll have no choice but to do everything they say from now on. And Molly…" He turned away. It was either that or put his fist through Connell's face.

"I...I realize that now. I just didn't…"

Nate forced himself to focus and think. And, more importantly, act.

"Hardison, get every frame of security footage from the house for the last two weeks backed up on your computer. Then Connell's going to fry his system. We can't risk the Russians thinking he's going to turn them in."

"Right."

"Parker. I need you to clean up anything that makes this house look like a crime scene."

Connell sputtered, "B-but why?"

"Because," Sophie said, "the only way you and Molly get out of this alive is if you do everything the Russians ask you to from now on – and you don't give them any reason to fear you. If they think you're a threat, they'll kill her. Or worse."

"What's worse?"

Nate hated the man anew for daring to ask and spun back to him.

"They'll kill you. And they'll own Molly. They'll pay off your debt with her. In any way they want."

Connell's face went red, then white, and he looked like he was going to vomit.

A cascade of ice water came down from above. Parker glared at him.

"I have to go clean your stupid house, so if you freak out one more time, I'm going to tase you."

Connell blinked at her.

Nate rose and pulled Sophie aside.

"This...this is worse than I thought. It's not just the Russians. They didn't come after Eliot for payback. They came after him to sell him. Do you have any idea how many people might want his head?"

"At least four countries," Sophie said. "Just from what he's told me over the years."

Nate was surprised, but then he realized that Sophie didn't mean that Eliot had told her directly – she had simply watched him and read the clues even he couldn't hide from her.

"He could be anywhere...and Molly could be anywhere too."

Sophie glanced back at Connell and bit her lip. "What are we going to do? How can we help Eliot and leave Molly to the Russians?"

Nate felt sure that he would run out of rage at some point, but he certainly wasn't anywhere near that point yet.

He remembered standing only a handful of yards from this very spot when Eliot had reported over comms that Molly had been taken. He remembered putting the whole team on a reset, ready to burn Connell and the chip and anything else necessary to save her.

He remembered what he had said to Eliot.

Eliot, we're gonna need to know if anyone has left the carnival.

Forty seconds from the main entrance. Nate, if I'm engaged…

And he remembered his response. Do your worst.

Nate Ford had unleashed Eliot Spencer, had 'taken the safety off the gun' as Sophie had put it that one time in Nebraska. He known everything that Eliot was capable of then, and he'd sent him to put that full destructive power to work.

Now it fell to him to do the same.

Nate looked back at Sophie, spotted Hardison and Parker across the room both watching him with eyes that held a silent plea for him to have some kind of answer, some kind of plan.

"I don't know. But we will find a way. We will get them both out, safely. We're bringing them home. No matter what."

Chapter Text

Eliot woke in bits and pieces, aware and yet unaware at the same time, and when he could feel anything about it at all, it was infuriating. He was at one point cognizant of being on a plane (noting the distinctive noise and pressure), but couldn't so much as open his eyes or listen beyond the roar of jet engines. He was also close enough to the surface to feel a hand on him, but dropped back into the confused, grey miasma of his head shortly thereafter.

But he forced himself to rise completely at the sound of a frightened cry of his name.

"Eliot! Help!"

Eliot surged upwards, fists cocked to slam, even before his vision remembered how to connect to his brain. He felt the impact with a bulky body and tore through several more while he tried to figure out if his eyes were open or not.

"Eliot!"

Oh, they must be open because he could see Molly somewhere between the two blurs that were in his way. He decided he didn't care about the blurs very much and let his body strike out at them while he tried to get his brain to orient to everything else.

Someone shouted something that didn't matter very much because then Molly was pressed to his side. She was unsteady – or he was a lot more unsteady than he thought – and he put an arm around her to pin her against him. She was saying something, but his ears were still working on language.

He felt Molly pulling at him and he followed her tugging just to make sure he kept holding onto her. There was more activity around him, people and talking, but none of it felt important.

"Eliot? Can you hear me?"

Eliot meant to say something reassuring because he wanted Molly not to sound so scared, but he was sure he didn't a moment later when she poked his shoulder with her voice raising in alarm.

"Eliot?"

This continued for some unknown amount of time while vision and hearing floated in and out and sometimes tasted the same. But finally Eliot became aware of a deep headache behind his eyes and could wrap his consciousness around the edges of his drugged state and shove it aside.

With a snap he woke in a barren, windowless room, a single bulb hanging above and providing some semblance of illumination that would put a firefly to shame. Still, it was enough to see.

"Molly?"

"Eliot!" Molly was crouched in front of him, her face smudged with dirt and tears. "Are you finally done being loopy? Because it's really not helping and you kept mumbling and I don't speak grunt."

Eliot took in the room in one long glance. Then he dropped his head and ran his hands through his hair.

Which was also when he noticed the heavy manacles on his wrists and ankles – the ankles chained with a long tether to a grate in the floor. They looked like leftovers from a gulag, probably Bulgarian but maybe Siberian. They were thick steel, much harder to break than standard US police-issue, and doubly hard to pick. If he'd even had lockpicks.

Before raising his head, Eliot whispered under his breath, "Don't believe me for five minutes."

He didn't even wait for Molly to answer before he looked up and spoke aloud. "I've got a pair of lockpicks in my back pocket. Give me a minute and we'll get out of here."

Molly blinked at him, wide-eyed.

"Here." Eliot palmed something and pushed it into her hands. "Go stand by the door. I'll be right there. I've got something else they missed that'll make them really sorry they didn't search me better." And he pulled one of the ankle manacles into the curl of his body to mess with it, counting slowly.

Six minutes later, he looked up. "Okay. All clear."

Molly made her way back over, holding out the rock he'd grabbed. "What's this for?"

"Nothing," Eliot said. "I wanted to know if they were monitoring us. If they had this place bugged with either cameras or microphones, they'd be here by now." He gave a dark smile. "First thing that's gone right all day."

"So…" Molly knelt beside him again. "We're not getting out of here yet?"

Eliot met her eyes and shook his head. "Not right away anyway."

"Oh. That's why you said not to believe you. Because you were testing them. So you don't really have lockpicks."

"Right."

Molly dealt with that information for a minute. Then she poked at the chains on Eliot's wrists. "Can you get those off?"

"Not without something to pick them. And it won't be easy. Gonna need more than a few hairpins to get these open." He gave an experimental tug. "I could break my thumbs, but that won't help with my feet."

Molly's eyes widened. "You won't...cut off your foot...will you?"

Eliot recoiled. "No! What the hell would you ask that for?"

"Uh, I saw it in a movie."

Eliot glared at her. "We are going to discuss your choices in entertainment from now on. Seriously." Then he shook his head. "Don't weaken yourself if you can help it when you're captured. Take the food you get, take the water. You have to be strong to survive and escape. Cutting off a foot is only something you do in the case of imminent death or danger. Imminent."

"Okay."

Eliot stretched out his legs, testing the bounds of the chains. His wrists could only be separated about twelve inches, and his feet maybe eighteen. The wrist manacles were attached to the ankle set with a chain not quite long enough for him to stand upright. Eliot grabbed the chain tether to the grate and gave it a yank.

"So...I guess you're not actually Superman."

Eliot turned back to where Molly dropped to sit on the ground. Her shoulders curved inwards and her head was down.

"Hey."

She didn't move.

"I said hey."

Now she looked up.

"In all that creepy-ass stuff you read, you ever come across the survival Rule of Three?"

"No?"

"It says you get no more than three minutes to find air if you're drowning. Three hours to find shelter if you're lost in the wilderness. Three days to find water. Three weeks to find food. That's how long you've got before you're dead where you stand. But there's something before all of that – you won't make it out at all if you go more than three seconds without hope."

She blinked at him.

Eliot gentled his tone and put out a hand. "You're alive, Molly. You're alive and you're not alone. And I'm going to get us out of this. I promise. I'll keep you alive and as safe as I can. You have to do your part in that. No matter how bad it gets, don't you let that third second without hope creep up on you. As soon as you do that, we're both dead."

Molly chewed her lip for a moment, then nodded. "Okay." She let him take her hand and she squeezed it. "I'm really glad you're here with me."

"Me, too. You got any idea where we are?"

"Nope. They made me drink the same stuff they gave you and I didn't wake up until we were getting out of a car in some dark garage." Then, a little more shakily, "They almost put me someplace else. But you kinda scared them. They made me put the chains on you, but the guy in charge said you'd be easier to control if you weren't going berserk trying to find me."

"That," Eliot said, "was a good call on their part. Or we might be in foot amputation territory by now."

She raised an eyebrow at him and gave him a shadow of a smile. "Now who's being creepy?"

"I learned from the best." Eliot twisted until he could get one of his dirtied sleeves closer to his face. He examined the dirt closely, smelled it, and even touched it with the tip of his tongue.

"God I hope you know what you're doing and you're not just crazy now," Molly said.

He frowned at her. "Gotta figure out where we are and that's the quickest way." He tasted it again, then spat. "I'm pretty sure we're in Venezuela. Caracas."

"You can tell that from the dirt?"

"It's very distinctive dirt." He closed his eyes. "This is bad."

Molly huddled closer to Eliot. "Why?"

He looked at her. "Are you sure you wanna know?"

She gulped, then nodded. "Yeah. I'm sure."

Eliot nodded too. "Okay. Short version – Venezuela is one of the most corrupt nations in the Western Hemisphere, which makes it a playground for every mafia, mob, and cartel that wants to set up shop. They've got everything from drugs to human trafficking here, and they can buy and kill with total disregard for the law because the law doesn't reach up into the shadows."

Eliot cupped his hands together.

"See, Caracas sits at the base of a mountain in kind of a big valley," he said. He wiggled his pinky in the center of his hands. "This is where the rich people live, at the heart of the city. Lots of wealth, lots of power. But out here," he wiggled his thumbs, "the poverty levels can be extreme. People live in boxes on top of boxes, or in garbage dumps. And the people down in the valley are surrounded. They'll do whatever it takes to keep a mudslide from rolling downhill. And the people on the hills will do anything to survive."

He sighed.

"I make it sound worse than it is. Look." And he met her eyes. "There are good people and bad people everywhere. There are always people who will do the right thing, no matter the consequences, and it has nothing to do with money. But this," and he held up his cupped hands again, "is the stuff of nightmares for the people who haven't been kind to others. It means funding for policing goes where the people with the money want it, deep in the center, and the good intentions of people trying for justice get swamped by the outside forces against them."

Eliot dropped his hands.

"We're in a place the US doesn't send tourists because it's too dangerous. And we're in a place where a little bit of money can buy a lot of muscle and a lot of official silence."

"But you've gotten out of worse, right?" Molly asked, a little breathless.

Eliot nodded. "Yeah. But it wasn't easy then and it won't be easy now." Seeing the low tremors that Molly was admirably trying to suppress, he lifted an arm and let her curl into his side, pressing her head against his chest. "I'm going to get us out of this, Botasky. It might take some time, and it might get ugly. I just need you to keep your head and do what I say."

"Okay, Eliot."

"I mean it." He put a little more gruff menace into his voice. "No playing hero, Molly. This isn't one of your creepy books. If I tell you to run and not look back, you run and don't look back. If I tell you to let them hurt me, you stand back and you let them hurt me, dammit. Got it?"

Her breath hitched and she tightened her grip around Eliot, tangling his shirt in her fists and shoving herself as deep into his space as she could get.

But she nodded against his chest.

"Okay. I promise. Under one condition. Non-negotiable."

Eliot was pleased at the fragile courage and even hint of humor in her voice. She was a tough kid and she was proving it once again.

But that didn't mean he'd let her get away with things. "What?"

"I just want you to tell me what's happening. I'll do what you tell me and I won't argue with you, but I...I want to know why."

"Might not have time to tell you," Eliot said.

"I know." Molly let out a breath. "But if you do have time, or if you can tell me later, will you? No secrets. Please?"

He wanted to argue that point. There could be any number of awful things that would happen, and he would rather she not have to know about his plans and defences against them. He'd already figured out why she was here – this was a standard Russian mob tactic. Force someone into committing a crime and then they could run their life forever. And with Molly right there, she was the perfect tool to ensure John Connell got roped body and soul into the power of these guys for life.

Eliot knew they would have promised Molly would be safe, but that was no guarantee. He knew what the Russian mob did with kids, especially girls. He knew what they could do to ensure compliance from even the bravest people. If he didn't watch out, Molly could get a lot worse than hurt before he got her to safety.

But, on the other hand, control and choice and consent were precious now, commodities as valuable as food and water. If Molly felt like she understood, she might feel more able to handle whatever was happening. And that confidence, no matter how slight, could save her life.

"Okay. No secrets if I can help it."

"Okay." A bit of tension drained out of her shoulders. "So...what do we do now?"

"First, you're going to sleep and I'm going to think."

That surprised Molly enough that she lifted her head. "Sleep? Why? I slept all the way here."

"You were drugged all the way here. It's not the same thing." Eliot shifted his hold on her and pulled her back to his chest. "There's no telling what kinds of openings we'll get, and we need more intel before we can start making chances of our own. You need to be rested for whenever we need to move." He hesitated for a moment before adding on, "Also, there's no telling when they'll feed us next. It'll be easier for you if you can sleep through being hungry for a while."

He felt her shudder, but almost just as quickly she forced her breathing to be slow and controlled.

"Okay. So why aren't you sleeping?"

"Because I can learn things by listening. And we'll both be safer if there's a lookout."

"Oh." Then, "What if I can't sleep?"

"Then count," Eliot said. "Count your heartbeats. If you get to five-thousand, that'll be enough for a start."

"Okay." Molly moved her legs to be slightly less uncomfortable and sank down, not relinquishing her hold on Eliot's middle. "Goodnight, Perky."

That gave Eliot an idea. "One more thing."

Molly looked up at him. "Huh?"

"You need to do everything I tell you to do. But if I ever call you Rats, what I need you to do is the opposite of whatever I'm telling you."

"Like a code?" Molly blinked. "So if you told me not to run but you called me Rats, you actually want me to run?"

"Exactly."

"That actually makes sense."

Eliot couldn't help but laugh – there was the cynical preteen he'd first met sulking under a tree in all her dismissive glory. "Thanks for the vote of confidence. Now – sleep."

Molly closed her eyes and settled. Eliot knew it was very hard to make yourself rest when you were scared, but he also knew that rest would be the best chance she would get at a clear head and the ability to react quickly later. He counted his own heartbeats and felt her slide into true sleep and not just fitful dozing around the two-thousand mark.

Then Eliot shifted his focus to completely outside himself, Molly, and their little room. He bent every sense he had to the tiniest of sounds and the slightest of air currents, and waited to see what they would tell him. Even a single piece of the right information would be enough for the groundwork of an escape plan.

And Eliot knew, from long experience, that the information he needed would come along eventually. He only had to be ready to catch it and use it.

-==OOO==-

Eliot's internal clock told him Molly had been asleep for the better part of two hours when he heard the sound of someone approaching the room. He shoved at her to wake her.

"Get behind me."

Then Eliot rolled to the balls of his feet, climbing into a crouch. He couldn't exactly spring far, chained to the grate as he was, but it put him in position to do serious harm to anyone who came within range. He pressed Molly back behind him to the wall.

"Remember our deal, Botasky."

"Okay, Perky."

He turned his snort into a warning growl as the thick door opened and a figure emerged.

"Ah, you're up. I'm impressed. Normally that mix puts people down for another twelve hours."

Eliot didn't bother to dignify that with any sort of response.

The man was the leader of the Russians who had stormed the Connell house. Eliot read him as former Spetznas in his bearing and the way he curled his socks, but he could also tell that this man was born into the Russian mob long before he ever went the special forces route. Probably vory born and bred. The tattoos he could see on the man's exposed arms and shoulders confirmed as much.

Wonderful.

"Hungry?" the Russian asked.

Eliot decided to get straight to the point. "What do you want?"

"You must eat something. We need you to keep your strength up. Otherwise you'll hardly fetch a good price."

Molly stifled a sound behind Eliot.

"I ain't exactly the kinda horse you wanna put in your stable," Eliot said.

The Russian shook his head. "Oh, no. Though, if our buyers get very creative, I'm sure they can get some use out of you. No, you're purely a money-making opportunity. A very lucrative money-making opportunity."

And Eliot understood. He dipped his chin. "You're running a hell of a risk here."

"Yes, but worth it." The man crossed his arms. "And with the collateral of your little friend there, I see no reason to be afraid." His smile was one of the most sinister Eliot had seen in years. "Shall I make our deal explicit?"

"Go for it."

"Behave yourself and you and the girl will be unharmed. If either of you makes trouble, however, both of you will be punished. Understood?"

Actually, that was more fair than Eliot had feared; he would trade a great deal for a guarantee of Molly's safety. "Yeah."

"Good." The Russian met Eliot's eyes evenly and Eliot knew he was dealing with someone who was completely aware of how penned-in the Hitter was with Molly's life on the line. "You will have to wait a few days before the sale, I fear, so we shall try to keep you in good spirits until then. If all goes very well, we may even send the little kukol'nyy home before it is your turn to say goodbye."

"It means puppet," Eliot quietly translated for Molly. Then he regarded the man. "Why? It can't take that long to sell me to anybody who wants my head."

"It doesn't." The Russian leered suddenly. "But you, my friend, provide an additional revenue source than just your head. There is a bounty on your employer. One as great as the one on yourself. And I have been assured by someone I trust that your Nate Ford will come for you."

Eliot felt his whole heart go cold.

"So I'm bait."

"A little worm on a hook." The Russian grinned. "Once we catch your friend and sell his body, we sell you and make twice as much. A very good deal, yes?"

The Russian turned to go.

"I will send down some food. I cannot let the little worm starve before he brings in big fish. Enjoy your hook. Soon you will be the food and I will be the one to feast."

When the door shut and was audibly locked, Molly leaned against Eliot. "Okay, his metaphors are the worst."

But Eliot wasn't listening. He was thinking.

A bounty on Nate's head.

And Nate would come for him; it was exactly the stupid thing Eliot told him not to do, so of course he would anyway.

Nate was leading the whole team into a trap.

Eliot lowered himself back to the floor and looked across at Molly, eyes glittering.

"New plan, kid."

"Yeah? We're still getting out of here, right?"

"Yeah, we are." And Eliot felt the steel and titanium of his soul grow up around his conviction. "And we're taking everything down when we go."

Eliot would leave this place nothing but a burned husk in his wake.

And then he would handle the bounty on Nate's head – by any means necessary.

Chapter Text

Nate really, really wanted a drink.

He threw back the last dregs of his mug of coffee and padded across the hotel suite to the coffee pot to start it up again. The pot wasn't quite empty, so he splashed the remaining cold coffee into his mug to gulp down while the new pot got going.

It lacked a great deal of the elegance and sophistication of whiskey – to say nothing of the soothing alcohol – but this, at least, would keep him awake.

After finishing at John Connell's house, they'd cleared out so as not to get in the way of any contact from the Russians. Hardison gave John a cheap, not-easily-traced cell phone so he could reach them whenever he got his assignment. Connell had asked Nate to stay, had asked the team to stay and help.

"The best help we can be right now is to leave so we don't give away our involvement in this before we're ready," Nate told him on the way out the door. He didn't tell the man that he would rather shove Connell's whole head into a toaster slot and plug it in than help him after he had fed Eliot to the Russians. Nate didn't even berate him for his cowardice and poor-decision-making and everything else. He simply said goodbye.

It was whatever Sophie had said that left the man broken and bawling all over again.

"I had to," she said in the car later. "They expect him to be a hopeless wreck. I just made it easier for him to give a good performance."

Nate had pretended not to see the secret fist-bump Parker gave her.

Now settled in a hotel suite in the city that was so recently their own, the team was hard at work. Hardison had shut himself into one of the bedrooms, wanting complete focus and isolation. He had to track the Russians, the FBI, and now every government or non-governmental group that might want Eliot dead. Sophie and Parker were out acquiring changes of clothes and other grift-necessary accessories – and also beginning the legwork to gather information on the Russians who had been at Connell's house with the initial information Hardison had pulled from his facial-recognition databases. Hardison might be able to tell them about criminal records and associates; Sophie needed to know about likes, dislikes, friends, and hooks.

And Nate was waiting.

It took all his self-restraint not to march himself down to the restaurant where he knew Boston's Russian mafia had a base and threaten, trick, and otherwise force them to reveal the locations of Molly and Eliot. That had been Plan A. Toss a few tables, throw his weight around as a son of Jimmy Ford and as the very notorious Nate Ford whose reputation was still enough to make even mob bosses pause, and get his Hitter and the girl back.

Of course, the problem with that scenario was the lack of said Hitter. Nate Ford knew walking into a crowd of Russian mobsters with nothing but anger and reputation to hurl at them would end with being carried out in a bag. If Eliot were here, he could do it. He would make the deal, or levy the threat, or offer the bribe, or whatever method was most likely to work, and Eliot would keep the thugs at bay and back up his play with appropriate intimidation tactics. And Sophie could do many things as a Grifter, but she couldn't play Eliot's stone-cold killer act.

To say nothing of the fact that it hadn't always been an act.

Sometimes, when Eliot stole Hardison's orange soda or traded pokes with Parker or cooked in the kitchen with Sophie, Nate could forget what he knew about the history of Eliot Spencer. He could see the man who was all heart, the man who would lay down his life for his team, the man who aimed to disable, not maim, even when it cost him in his own blood. He could see the chef, the musician, the loyal friend.

But Nate knew, probably better than anyone but Eliot himself, that that was only half of the true Eliot Spencer.

He'd known it since long before Damien Moreau.

Nate had chased each member of the team at one point or another. He'd investigated them all, given evidence on them all to local authorities, tracked them all so he knew where to put the blame for stolen items to save IYS the payouts. Sophie more than the rest, and he was starting to be certain that had not been an accident.

But he'd known something of who Eliot Spencer really was long before Dubenich added him to the team. He'd known of the soldier turned mercenary, the unstoppable retrieval specialist whose services could buy an infiltration of the most dangerous places in the world. He'd known that Eliot Spencer was rumored to have come from covert ops, to have been a professional assassin, to have worked as a hitman for more governments than most people had pairs of pants. Just rumors, but rumors that were whispered in low, fearful voices by men who feared nothing and no one.

Nate was pretty sure that at least some of those rumors had been true.

The coffee-maker bubbled and spit as the new pot started to fill.

Nate had learned in the last few years that there were times he needed Eliot Spencer at his side and times it was better to keep him invisible – and most of what determined one from the other had to do with whether or not the players in the game already knew those rumors and stories. The mobs, they knew. Maybe not the grunts, the new recruits, the errand boys, but every boss of every major mafia family knew Eliot's name and sometimes his face. There was power in that, in Nate being able to walk into a situation with Eliot at his side. Like walking with the Devil, or the Boogeyman, or Death itself waiting for his command to strike.

Eliot had given Nate that power to use, and had trusted him to use it well. Eliot played at being Nate's demon on a leash, proof that Nate should be feared, for he was the master of the monster.

And now, when that power could have helped save two lives, Nate had to find it in himself instead. Now the monster was in danger, Nate's leash was empty, and Nate had to become the demon.

"Hey."

Nate looked up, surprised that Hardison had come out of his self-imposed exile so soon.

"Got something?" he asked.

Hardison let out a breath. "Lots of things."

Nate frowned. He hadn't expected Hardison to be doing his 'behold my genius' dance, which would be out of place given the level of peril, but he also didn't expect the Hacker to look so haunted. Hardison's eyes were dull and wide. Sickened.

"You okay?"

"No, man." Hardison shook his head. "I'm really not."

Nate abandoned the coffee and crossed the room. "What did you find?"

Hardison looked at a piece of vague hotel art while he answered.

"I had to go into the deep web to find the auction for Eliot. The part of the internet that's reserved for psychopaths and kiddie porn. Did you know you can buy drugs and people and weapons like they were on Amazon there?" He swallowed. "And now...you can buy Eliot."

"Hardison." Nate tried to get his attention, but Hardison was staring resolutely at the bad hotel painting of maybe a bridge.

"Eliot's ad was right between a thing about machine guns for cheap and one for...you don't want to know."

Nate was pretty sure he could guess anyway and just nodded.

Finally Hardison turned to catch Nate's eyes, his own like a drowning man grabbing onto a line to keep his head above water.

"Normally we go after corporate jerks, or politicians, or political jerks. Not...actual people who make Darth Vader look like a model father. And these are the guys who have Eliot?"

"Hardison, calm down." Nate knew as he said it that it was thoroughly incongruous, that Hardison was, in fact, overly calm right now. But he needed the panic, the usual I'm-in-over-my-head flail that was Hardison being afraid and overwhelmed while also preparing to deal, and not this frozen shock. He needed Hardison to feel in order to move forward. And as with most things, telling Hardison to react one way incited the opposite.

"Dude!" Hardison blinked, his eyes narrowing and his body coiling with tension. "Don't you get it? There's a fun little line at the bottom of Eliot's ad. 'If no one meets our initial bid price, we would consider lowering it and selling the merchandise piece by piece.' They...they're…!"

Hardison rocked on his feet, looking like he was going to storm away.

Nate grabbed his shoulder, anchoring him in more ways than one.

"Hardison." He waited until the Hacker met his gaze again. "I know all that."

"And we're just sitting here!"

Nate gave Hardison a small shake. "Do you know where he is?"

"Somewhere in Venezuela. There's enough bids already that they're talking about having some kind of live auction, like the Marketplace from Kiev."

"Okay." Nate tightened his grip on Hardison's shoulder. "Good. That means we've got some time."

Hardison yanked himself backwards. "Time to be doing God knows what to him! And Molly! She's...they got these ads about girls..."

He closed his eyes and Nate was only surprised Hardison wasn't screaming.

Nate let Hardison have that moment to break down, the moment that had probably been building since he'd told them Eliot was missing. Hardison could play up his 'gansta' ways, but it was as much a grift as any he ran on a con. With Hardison and Parker, it was easy to forget that they were so very young, and Parker had been aged by the cold edges of the world more than Hardison. It was no mystery why Hardison gravitated to Eliot, irritating him while sheltering in his shadow like hiding behind a protective older brother. Hardison always tried to face the world through some kind of buffer or barrier, be it a grift, a piece of code, a video game, or someone else.

But there was nothing Nate could do to protect Hardison from the world they were walking into now.

Nate waited until Hardison's face was torn between fury and tears, until the shaking went from his hands up to his shoulders, and then pulled him into a one-armed hug.

"They're going to be all right, Hardison. We're going to find them."

"Yeah, but what if…"

"And the only thing you should worry about right now is making sure we get there before anything happens that we can't fix. Which is why I need you to find them for me. So we can get to them. Because we will."

Hardison sniffed and pulled back, visibly forcing his expression back into the cocky Hacker who was too cool for being scared.

"Yeah. Right." He rubbed at his nose, trying to regain his street cred and mostly failing. "I did get some hits on facial recognition on some traffic cameras that I tracked to Logan where they got in a private jet. I think Molly and Eliot were put on the same private flight down to Venezuela. I can't hack the Caracas airport from here 'cause it's all under construction and most of its security stuff is internal. But it should be pretty easy to see who got off that plane if they really landed at Simon Bolivar Airport."

"Good." Nate could see that Hardison was working past the panic now, getting his head back into the right space for the work.

"And I already got us some flights down there. Picked a bunch of aliases – figured you would want us to have options."

"Okay. Call Sophie and set it up with her. Tell her we probably need to prepare a couple different variations on a Kansas City Shuffle, and maybe a Gas Leak Special." Nate smirked at Hardison's expression. "It all depends on who shows up to this little shindig."

"Okay, but I ain't signing up to get my legs broken. We clear on that?"

"Crystal clear." Nate nodded. "Oh, and tell Sophie to work on her Greek. We might need it."

That won him an incredulous look. "Seriously?"

"Get to it." Nate turned away and headed for his coffee, leaving Hardison blinking after him.

"Hey."

Nate looked over his shoulder. Hardison was still shifting his weight, uncertain, but his wariness was normal now.

"You really think they're gonna be okay?"

"Yeah." Nate didn't look Hardison in the eye as he said it, focusing on his coffee. "They will be. But they're counting on us to get them out."

"I thought Eliot told you to keep us away from this."

"Well." Nate stirred his coffee for a moment. "Okay, he did that, too. But that was before he knew Molly was going to be taken. If he were here, don't you think he'd want us to get her back?"

"No, I don't."

Nate looked up in surprise.

Hardison huffed. "I think he'd ditch us in the middle of the night and go get her himself."

Nate chuckled. "You're probably right. So let's make sure we get down there and get them out before he does just that."

Hardison muttered something to himself and headed back into the room. Nate settled himself on a couch with the coffee, absently listening to Hardison calling Sophie.

He hadn't quite lied. He did think Eliot would be okay. And if Eliot weren't one-hundred-percent incapacitated, he would keep Molly as safe as possible, too. He knew Eliot could handle everything the Russians could imagine for him and probably several things they couldn't.

But the difference was that Nate knew exactly what that would look like, and Hardison didn't.

There was a reason Nate had insisted Hardison build their earbud comm network with the ability to adjust the connections between them, muting lines for some but not others. It had served them well a few times, but none so much as the job where they had sent Hardison to infiltrate the Dustmen secret society. They had all started the job on the same comms as usual, everybody connected to everybody.

But the first night Eliot spent in the 'research facility,' he had told Nate to cut his line off from everybody else.

Nate was alone at the office, which was to say, his home, and had done so, muting the pair of them on a private connection while he let the other three snark at one another about Hardison's homework assignments and such.

"Nate, it's gonna be ugly," Eliot had said.

"Do we need to abort?"

"I guess that depends. How bad do we want this guy?"

Nate had considered that. "Not bad enough for you to be in a situation you can't handle."

Eliot had chuckled then. "Oh, I can handle it. These guys think torture is noise and cold and inane questions. That's not even foreplay where I come from."

Nate had been very grateful Eliot couldn't see him flinch. "Okay. And Parker's got a key now, so she'll be able to get you out if you're in trouble. But if I think it's going too far, I'll pull the plug. And then I want you out of there."

"Fair enough." Eliot was quiet for a moment. "Nate, don't put me back on with the others. Unless they ask, and then only for a little while at a time."

"Why not?" Nate remembered his days in prison and how much easier it had been when he had a comm and the ability to talk to the others. Even if it wasn't for the plan, even if it was nothing more than idle banter and chatter. It had kept him grounded, focused. It had reminded him why he had reason to get out in the first place.

"Hardison ain't gonna be able to look that kid in the face if he's hearing me with their interrogator," Eliot said. "He's gotta be above all this crap. He's bad enough at acting already. If he pukes while I'm getting a beat-down, everything'll go to hell."

Nate couldn't argue that point. "One condition, though, or I'm pulling the plug right now."

"What's that?"

"You're staying online with me. Night and day. I'll sleep with the feed playing if I have to. But I have to know somebody is listening in case you need an out."

"Prepare for trying to sleep through a lot of loud metal music," Eliot had told him.

And that had been the least of it. The nightly beatings happened, too, and Nate tore a towel in half listening to Eliot take punches without fighting back. Then there was the cold, enough for Eliot's teeth to chatter like odd static on the line. And the interrogations at all hours, sometimes four over the course of the night, and Eliot's far colder answers.

But Eliot hadn't broken. Hadn't even spent a moment out of control. Nothing the interrogator could do or say, as Eliot told him, was worse than what Eliot carried inside his head already. And the pain and discomfort was bearable in the world of Eliot who had known so much worse.

Nate limited the exposure of Eliot's comm to the others, especially as Rush Week heated up. The one time Hardison could hear Eliot shivering with cold, it took him almost an hour to be able to focus on the con again.

Between the rest of it, when Eliot hadn't been asleep, he and Nate had played chess; Eliot had played chess with Nate over comms when he was in prison, too. And though Nate could outplay Eliot seven times out of ten, they had fun dissecting weaknesses and debating tactics in a way that didn't interest Hardison or Sophie or Parker.

But this time Eliot was facing all that and worse with no comm in his ear. With no Nate ready to call an abort, ready to arrange an extraction. With no Parker bringing real food and warm coats and water. With no friendly police officer a phone call away.

Yes, Nate knew Eliot would be okay. But he also knew what Eliot might have to survive on the way to being okay. He didn't have to imagine.

"Hardison!"

Hardison leaned so he could yell into the room. "Hang on – what, Nate?"

"Tell Sophie to get a bottle of whiskey for me, will you?"

"Nate says he's thirsty," Hardison said with a scowl.

"That's not what I said!"

"Sophie says Parker already stole you some."

"Thanks, Parker!" Nate called, hopefully loud enough to be heard. "And Hardison!"

"What?"

"Tell them to come get comms before they go anywhere else."

"Really?"

"Yes. Really."

Nate tuned out the rest of Hardison griping over the phone with Sophie, in spite of various pointed comments lobbed his way.

He couldn't hear Eliot, and he knew the silence on the line where his Hitter should have been would be hard for them all. But he needed to hear the others now. Needed to be able to reach them in a second. Even here in Boston. Even if they were all in the same building. Even before the con began.

He needed that permanent link to bind them, to fill in the gap where Eliot should have been.

"Nate."

He looked up to see Hardison holding out an earbud. He set his coffee on the table and slipped the tiny thing into place.

"Thanks."

Hardison stared at him for a long moment and Nate wondered what the Hacker was reading in his own face and body. Hardison wasn't the expert of human behavior and tells that Sophie was, and he didn't have her slightly frightening attention to details about Nate specifically, either. But Nate was running without sleep, and currently without whiskey, and the more that earbud sat with silence over the comms, the more it tore at him.

"Listen. I've got a good start going, and most of my searches can run without me watching them for a while. We could head down there now and figure out the plan on the way. It's a seven hour plane ride from whenever we leave either way."

Nate just looked at him.

"I mean...now that we know where we're going, why are we still just sitting here thinking and sending the girls to get supplies? We're going to be seven hours behind whatever I find out anyway. Can't we go now and figure it out when we're close enough to do something?"

"Yeah!"

Nate almost jumped at Parker's unexpected voice in his ear. "Parker?"

He could practically hear her rolling her eyes. "The only person who didn't have a comm on them already is you, silly."

"She's right," came Sophie's voice. "We were just waiting for you to decide to start using them."

Nate made a noncommittal noise.

"So why aren't we going right now?" Parker asked. "We could've chartered a plane from the house and sat on the runway until Hardison knew where we were going."

"Yes, we could have." Sophie's voice had that tone to it that told Nate she was feeling smug – and that she was about to say something he probably would be a lot happier if she kept quiet.

"Sophie…" he warned.

"If Hardison's got the location," Sophie said, ignoring him, "then there's only two reasons we're not on a plane right now. First, Nate's not sure he's bringing all of us with him."

"Aw, hell no." Hardison crossed his arms and glared at Nate and it ached in Nate's chest how much that posture looked like Eliot. "You ain't doing that lone wolf cowboy thing on us this time. No way."

"Are cowboys wolves?" Parker asked. "Also, no. He's not. What's the other reason?"

"Oh. Hey, I get it!"

Nate blinked at the look of comprehension on Hardison's face. "What?"

"You're totally having a Heroic BSOD."

"Uh, I really didn't need to know that, Hardison."

"Parker!"

Nate blinked. Confirmed for himself that whatever acronym that was, it wasn't related to kinky sex. At least, he didn't think it was connected to kinky sex. But it was Hardison, so...

"It means," Hardison said, frowning, "Heroic Blue Screen of Death."

"It's an acute stress reaction," Sophie said. "Basically, he's frozen."

"I am not," Nate snapped.

"Then why the hell ain't we already running for the airport?" Hardison bent down, glaring. "We know about where Eliot probably is. We know where Molly probably is, or was. I ain't gonna get much more from here."

"Hardison." Sophie's voice was gentle, but there was steel in its tone. "Do me a favor. Make sure Nate is doing exactly as I say."

"Okay."

"Nate?"

Nate frowned at being addressed in that soothing, almost-con voice. Then he sighed. "Right, fine. Go ahead."

"Close your eyes."

He did.

"Think about Eliot for a minute. Not fighting, just...where he is right now. What he needs."

And Nate's mind rebelled. It slipped instead to an image of a pale, thin chest, of unforgiving hospital lights, of the whine of a heart monitor going flat.

"Uh...Sophie?"

"That's what I thought. Nate? Open your eyes."

Nate was surprised that Hardison was about six inches away from his nose, staring.

"There's no glass this time, Nate," Sophie said, warm and real. "There's no door between you and the person who needs you. And this isn't something you're powerless to fix."

"And you're not alone," Parker said. "So if you go all BDSM again, we can help you."

"BSOD, Parker!" Hardison yelled. "Heroic Blue Screen of Death!"

"Whatever."

"Nate."

Nate shut his eyes one more time. He heard the question in Sophie's voice. He knew she wanted to know if he could handle this. If he could face a child under threat and one of his own in danger like this and not lose it. If he could save Eliot and Molly when he could not save his son.

A few years ago, maybe the whole of the two situations wouldn't have been conflated in his mind.

But a lot had changed in those years. Maybe himself most of all.

"Okay." Nate opened his eyes and pushed to his feet, almost knocking Hardison backwards. "Guys? Enough stalling. Get to the airport. We'll meet you there. Hardison, do whatever you have to."

He could feel the smiles on the other end of the comms, relieved and ready as Hardison's own.

"Come on. Let's go steal an Eliot."

Chapter Text

Eliot didn't say another word until there was the banging knock at the door.

Molly looked up at him.

"Stay back here," he told her, and returned to his ready crouch.

The door opened just enough for a plastic mixing bowl to slide in on the floor. A pair of water bottles rolled after it.

"Hey!" Eliot yelled.

No one entered, but the door paused in the act of closing.

"Tell your boss to send down some paper towels or something. And a damn blanket while you're at it."

The door shut and locked.

"Paper towels?" Molly asked. "Are they some kind of secret weapon for our escape?"

"No." Eliot opted not to meet her eyes. "But eventually we're gonna need something for toilet paper."

Molly froze. She looked around as if for the first time, realizing the room was utterly devoid of anything resembling a toilet. Her gaze landed on the grate to which Eliot's chains was attached.

"Yup. Sorry, Botasky."

Molly closed her eyes and let out a deliberate breath. "Just like camping, right?"

Eliot quirked a half-smile. "Only if you camp in some pretty weird places."

"Shut up." Molly flounced across the floor to retrieve the bowl and water bottles. She brought the bowl back in her hands, tucking the water bottles under an arm. "I thought it would be, you know, gruel. It's always gruel in the movies."

The bowl held three different foods all scooped in next to one another. The first was a simple white rice, the second a mixture of black beans and something else, and the third a small pile of shredded meat.

"Not good for production," Eliot said. "We're probably not the only prisoners here, and it's easier to feed everybody the same moderate slop than have to cook two completely different meals for your goons and your livestock."

"Does the boss eat this stuff, too?"

"Probably not. His lieutenants will eat well too. And when the goons get rewarded, they get to share in it. But a place like this?" Eliot glanced around. "Most of the goons here will be so glad to get three square meals a day, they won't care what it is."

Eliot took the bowl from her and scooped up a bit of all three with his fingers. "Sorry. We're gonna be eating a little like barbarians here."

"Whatever. Like I really care at this point."

Eliot snorted at her, amused, and closed his eyes, focusing on the food, both how it felt on his skin and what he could taste when he put it into his mouth. He was by no means an expert in drugs and poisons, but there were a few he had cause to know fairly well. And he had learned that he didn't have to specifically be able to identify a contaminant to know there was something amiss. And he did know the taste of spoiled food, or meat that wasn't safe to eat.

On the plus side, the food appeared to be fine, if overcooked, poorly seasoned, and probably scraped from the bottom of the pot. On the minus side, he was absolutely certain it wasn't beef that had been shredded for them.

"Question," he said after swallowing his mouthful. "How badly do you want to know what's in here?"

"I...don't think I want to know. I mean, it's not...people...right?"

Eliot levied a glare. "Of course not. These guys aren't that bad." He shook his head. "I am burning every book in your house when we get back. This is ridiculous."

"Okay." Molly shrugged. "Then as long as it won't kill me, I'm just not going to think about this being secretly rat or something."

Eliot decided to leave it at that. "Good. Eat slowly, starting with the rice, and eat until you're not quite hungry anymore."

At her look, he rolled his eyes.

"You were drugged and you don't want to get sick, so the rice will help your stomach. And there's not enough here for both of us to get full, so we have to share. Plus, being a little bit hungry will keep you sharp. And it'll mean less...mess later."

Molly looked at the grate on the floor again. "So gross."

"Yep."

They passed the bowl back and forth, scooping up bites with their fingers. Molly left a bit more of the meat for Eliot – he privately thought she wasn't quite as open to the possibilities as she pretended to be – and he left extra beans for her in exchange. He also checked the bottles of water for tampering, but they seemed all right. He drank only a little of his own, and Molly copied him, throwing another glare to the grate.

"I'm going to name it," she said suddenly.

"Name what?"

"That." She pointed at the grate. "I have to call it something so I can hate it." She pushed to her feet to cross to it, perching above it like a hungry hawk. She studied the metal bars as closely as Nate would the screens of data on a mark, and Eliot smiled.

"If you name it something stupid, I reserve the right to make that your new nickname," he warned.

"I'm calling it Dexter," she said. She faced him, crossing her arms. "Acceptable?"

"Works for me. So, got one for our Russian friend?"

"What, the boss guy?"

"Yeah." Eliot offered her the bowl of food and she returned to grab a scoop of rice. "He didn't introduce himself. We gotta call him something." He glanced at her. "And I owe him one for that." He indicated the slight bruising on her cheek.

Molly flinched slightly, but then asked, "How'd you know who did it?"

"You kept your face out of sight when he was here."

She nodded. "It didn't even hurt that much."

Eliot drew in a deep breath. It was either that or explode. "I'll pay him back for it, though. I promise. And that will hurt."

That earned him a small smile. "Deal."

"So what do we call him?"

"How about Gogol?"

"As in the Bond villain?"

She nodded.

"I'm still burning all your books and movies, and maybe your computer while I'm at it," Eliot said.

Molly grinned at him. "What? Are you telling me that James Bond isn't an accurate portrayal of espionage? Of good versus evil locked in combat to the death?"

Eliot glared. Molly responded by giggling and flicking a pebble in his direction.

A little after they'd wiped the bowl clean with their hands, there was another knock on the door. Molly rose, but Eliot took the bowl from her and shoved her back behind him. He adjusted his position slightly.

When the door opened, he threw the bowl, banked it off a wall, and sent it rolling out the door with pinpoint accuracy, where it was met with a surprised Spanish expletive. A moment later, a slightly battered roll of paper towels and an armload of blankets were dropped inside the door and it shut again.

Only when the door was locked did Eliot move away from Molly. "Okay. Shake out the blankets over there and look for fleas or bedbugs. Bring them over when you're done."

Molly separated three thin blankets and shook them as far away from herself as possible, only holding them with two fingers. Eliot didn't see any bugs when he examined them, but he made a mental note to check them both for fleas periodically anyway.

"Okay, Botasky. What have we learned so far?"

"That you know way too much about dealing with prisons and possible rat meat," she said promptly. At Eliot's look, she shrugged, settling where she could sit on a blanket across from him. "That they're not going to kill us? At least right away?"

"That's a good start," he said, nodding. "We've also learned that it's not a Russian who is bringing us things, at least some of the time. So probably somebody paid to follow orders, but not a direct threat."

"That's good, right? That means it'll be easier to get past him?"

"Exactly. We've also learned they're willing to negotiate with us, or we wouldn't have this stuff."

"So?"

"So we might be able to get something else we need."

"Lockpicks?"

"No."

"A chainsaw?"

"No." This time he poked her with a foot.

"A phone?"

Now Eliot's face bent in a smile. "You're not wrong, but that's not what we're going to ask for."

Molly was surprised. "We're getting a phone? So we can call for help?"

"In a manner of speaking." Eliot ran a hand through his hair. "Look, you wanted me to be straight with you, right?"

"Duh."

"Okay. Well." He let out a breath before he met her eyes. "That means I have to tell you that we can't get out right away."

"We can't?"

"No. I have to do something before we can leave."

"So...when we get a phone, you're going to tell your friends not to come."

"Not...exactly." Eliot considered his next words carefully. "If I tell them that, they'll be here ten minutes later when Hardison tracks our location. They'll run in here and these guys will…" He forced himself not to think about it. "I have to slow them down. Just long enough for me to get out of these damn chains and have a talk with Gogol."

"What if Gogol isn't here when you get out of the chains?" Molly asked.

"That's why I have to create a delay. I have to make sure to time it so I get loose when he's here. Otherwise, I could miss him."

"Okay. Let me see if I've got this." Molly held out her hands, ticking off her points on her fingers. "You want to ask them for something specific, and somehow that'll get us a phone."

"Right."

"And then you'll use the phone to do something so your friends won't get here for a while."

"Yep."

"And then...at some point when you know Gogol is here, you'll figure out how to get out of the chains and go 'talk' to him and then we can get out of here?"

"Basically."

"Couldn't you figure out how to get out of the chains now and just pretend you're still chained up until you talk to Gogol?" she asked.

Eliot shook his head. "The only way out of these things is with a key. There's only going to be a few keys that work, or maybe just one. Stealing it won't be easy. If we get it today, but I have to wait until tomorrow, somebody's going to notice it's gone."

Molly frowned. "How are you even going to steal it if it's out there and you're in here?"

Eliot sighed. "That's the part you're not going to like."

"Okay. Assume I don't like it. What is it?"

"I'm going to need to get them to beat me up."

"What?"

Eliot shrugged. "It's the simplest way. I can piss them off and they'll come in here and I'll get the key in the middle of the beat-down, assuming they have it on them."

Molly shook her head. "You could get hurt that way! And they might not even have it anyway. What if I try to steal the key for you while you're being a distraction?"

"No." Eliot reached over and grabbed her arm. "Molly, whatever you do, do not steal anything from these people. Promise me."

"Uh, okay?"

"I'm serious!"

"Okay, I seriously promise. But why?"

"The Russian mob, they come out of a bunch of alliances between thieves going back to the Russian gulags. They lived by a code of honor once, though it's mostly been abandoned. But it means they still have a bunch of rules about how things are done that they can enforce if they want to. Right now, your dad has been contracted to them in exchange for your safety. As soon as he does what they ask, he'll belong to them for the rest of his life. But you're still an outsider. You're a civilian to them."

"And if I steal something from them?" She wrapped her fingers around a fraying edge of the blankets, twisting and pulling with her nervousness.

"Then you'll owe them. And you'll be in the exact same position as your dad. And they will make you pay them back." He held her eyes. "If you don't want to be forcibly initiated into the ranks, don't steal from them. Okay?"

He felt badly about scaring her, but he would rather see Molly a little scared than make a mistake that got her pulled into the mafia. He tried to give her the steady look that would quiet those nerves, and after a few slightly-quick breaths, she started to settle again.

"Okay, Eliot. But...can't we come up with something you can do that doesn't involve you getting beat up?"

"I'll work on it, but no guarantees. All right?"

She sighed. "Sure. But that's part two. Part one is still getting a phone so your friends don't come right away."

Eliot nodded.

"And how do we do that? Gogol is the only one who's even come in here."

"That's what we need," Eliot said. "We need somebody to come in here."

"What, like we pretend I'm sick and they come check it out? Yeah, right." Molly scowled. "Don't you read the internet or books or anything? You can't just assume that the bad guys will do something dumb like that. Especially when they've been smart so far. That's, like, six different incompetent bad guy tropes right there."

If anything, that made Eliot smirk. "Exactly."

"You're glad they're smart?"

"Yep."

"Why?"

Eliot settled back. "Watch and learn, Botasky. Watch and learn."

-==OOO==-

Eliot's inner clock told him it had been about less than an hour since the delivery of blankets when there came a bang on the door again.

That was good – otherwise, he might have to adjust his plan.

He already knew that Nate and the team were probably on their way to Venezuela by now. He knew his team, knew what they could do when they were motivated. The flight from Portland to Boston would have almost exactly corresponded with their own airlift to Caracas. Assuming they made fast work of Connell and didn't bother with commercial flights, Eliot figured they would need about two hours in Boston to figure out where to go and then set off right away. Which meant he was now only four or maybe five hours ahead of them.

He had to put some things in their path as soon as possible or they might get too close.

Eliot's priorities had undergone a few shifts since he left Portland, but now they were set in stone.

First, keep Molly safe.

Second, keep Nate and the team safe.

Nothing else mattered.

In order to attain either of these, Eliot had to get control of the situation, both his own captivity and the trap Gogol was setting for Nate.

Which meant playing by a different set of rules for a while.

With a price on Nate's head, Eliot had to move cautiously. He couldn't just grab Molly and run at the first opportunity. He had to make sure he knew who had put that bounty out on Nate in the first place. Only then could he get Molly to safety before tracking down whatever idiot had threatened Eliot's team. To do that, he had to get Gogol to talk.

But Eliot knew Gogol was the kind of Russian boss who didn't live in the slums. He would have an apartment in the middle of the city, and a respectable outwards appearance, even a lucrative day job. He would make only periodic visits as required to where Eliot and Molly were being held. In fact, Eliot was fairly sure he wouldn't see Gogol again until it was time for him to be sold, or for the man to gloat over having bested Nate Ford. Any other time spent hanging around would only endanger the entire operation, and this operation ran too well to be bungled so easily.

And if Gogol was smart enough to run things this well, he was also smart enough to spring his trap on the team someplace else, someplace they wouldn't see it coming, someplace too far for Eliot to reach them.

Ideally, Eliot would throw a few mines into Gogol's path to slow him down, maybe even make it impossible for Gogol to deal him to whoever the highest bidder was going to be. Only then would Gogol return but the team would still be safe, and then Eliot could move.

But that was unlikely. He'd do it if he got the chance, but he couldn't count on it. The only thing he could do was delay and disturb the team enough to keep Gogol off balance and unlikely to move against them.

So Eliot had control both their timetables and keep them all in the air without letting either of them know about it.

There was a play that worked, a single thread he could tug that could keep the pieces moving into and out of each others' way. But tugging that thread was the hardest part of all. He knew how to do it, but putting himself into the position to reach it was the problem.

He could always get somebody to beat him up, but he had told Molly he would try to find a way out of that one. Besides, that was a tactic that only really worked once, and he intended to save it if he could.

Molly had been checking over the blankets thread by thread for fleas just to pass the time, but scrambled back into her place behind Eliot as the door clicked open.

Eliot smelled opportunity.

"Stay behind me, Rats," he said sharply.

Molly jolted, then jumped to her feet. She planted herself directly in front of Eliot and blocked him from view.

A thin young man appeared in the doorway, holding a phone. He stopped as soon as he saw Molly.

"Rats, I said get down," Eliot growled.

Molly threw her shoulders back, though he could see from behind that her chin was shaking slightly.

The man took a few steps into the room. "Move," he said, and his English was heavily accented.

Molly shook her head. "What do you want with him?"

Eliot could have cheered at her improvisation.

"Picture," the man said. He paused, considering the words. "Truth of life."

"You mean proof of life," Molly shot back. She adjusted her angle so she stood directly between the man's camera and Eliot.

"You're gonna get hurt, Rats," Eliot said.

The man advanced, lowering the phone and starting to look both angry and desperate. "Move now."

"Not a chance."

He took one more step forward, lining up a punch aimed at Molly's face.

And Eliot moved.

Molly spun sideways and Eliot tackled the man. In three quick moves, he got the man into a simple hold, the chains serving nicely to put pressure on the man's throat.

"Now." Eliot let his voice go as low and deadly as possible. "Here's what we're going to do. Molly, don't."

She looked longingly at the open door, but stayed close.

"What do you need?"

"Grab his phone."

The man squeaked in fear.

"Listen." Eliot released his grip slightly. "Is your boss around?"

He shook his head.

"Okay. Then nobody needs to know this happened. Right? Nobody needs to know you almost let us get away. And I'll let you go without hurting you, but only after she sends this one text."

The man squeaked again.

"Not a cry for help. Not giving away your boss. Nothing that could possibly hurt you." Eliot gentled his tone. "I don't want to get you killed here. If I did, you'd already be dead. But you're going to do this for me and then you can have your picture and nobody will have to know you messed up."

"Who am I texting, Eliot?" Molly asked.

Eliot rattled off the number from memory. Then he gave her a second series of numbers and a very short message.

"See?" he asked the man in his grip. "Nothing bad about that. And you can check the coordinates. They're not even on this side of the globe. There's nothing there to hurt your boss. It'll never get back to you. Unless you tell somebody you let us use your phone."

And he tightened his grip warningly.

Molly giggled. "Are you seriously using the same tactic on him that they used on my dad?"

"Gotta go with what works, kid." He released the man's throat and turned him so their eyes met. "We got a deal? I won't tell nobody you gave us your phone, and neither will you."

The man gave a terrified nod. "Okay."

"Good." Eliot released him entirely. "Take your picture."

The man snatched the phone back from Molly and pointed the phone's camera. He had to take four versions before he could stop his hands from shaking so hard the results were too blurry to use.

Eliot didn't quite smile. This was going to have consequences, immediate and long-lasting. If he even got out of this alive, he was going to be subjected to a great deal of yelling, at least. That was the best-case scenario – months of yelling. Worst case didn't bear thinking about.

And that was if he lived to the end at all.

But Eliot wasn't too bothered by that possibility.

It was, after all, a more than fair exchange. For all that he had done in his bloodied life, Eliot deserved death – dishonorable, inglorious, and painful. That was the reality. But somewhere in the last few years, Eliot had dedicated his life to preserving four lives more precious to him than anything in the world. His team – whatever they were, and he didn't always have words for it, but he could feel it and it was the only feeling worth keeping in his withered heart – keeping them safe was the only thing that mattered anymore. He would die a thousand times and more for any one of them.

That was a gift they had given him. Reason to live, as he'd said to Nate. But so much more than that, too. Friendship, loyalty, purpose. They let him live the illusion of goodness, when he knew he was still the devil's own creation walking. They let him act on behalf of the angels when he was a monster himself.

And they gave him something to protect, something to love, something to serve.

Any consequences were worthwhile if they came about for the betterment of those four people, those four lives worth anything.

He would die eagerly in their service and be grateful for the chance to atone one more time for that which was unforgivable.

But he couldn't die yet. Not while they were in danger.

Not while Molly was a prisoner and a price hung over Nate's head.

He would pay in blood to extract them from this if he had to. He would spill it all without hesitation, and he already knew that was an inevitability, one way or another.

But for now, all that was needed was one simple message.

"You owe me."

Chapter Text

Nate was the only one who managed to sleep on the plane, which was why he was the only one awake when his phone buzzed.

It was early evening when the plane Hardison had arranged – and Nate no longer cared how exactly the Hacker got jets to fly on his say-so under who-knew-what pretenses, as long as it worked – landed in Caracas. It took less than an hour for the group to break into the security booth to retrieve footage from the airport so Hardison could confirm the arrival of the plane that had been carrying Eliot and Molly. He was able to catch a single frame of them being transferred off the plane into a van; Molly looked unconscious and Eliot scarcely better, and nobody said a word about whether or not they were still breathing. Hardison could follow them as far as the van speeding off airport property, which meant they were here in the city somewhere.

But by this point, the team had been running without stopping for the better part of twenty-four hours, and most of it without sleep after getting started in the middle of the night. Nate made sure they got settled in a hotel suite and convinced the others to take a nap.

Which is to say, he asked Sophie politely and sensibly, bribed Parker with future chocolate, and glared Hardison into submission.

Parker was the only one who resisted before curling up on the huge bed next to where Hardison had sprawled into a lanky, boneless heap which had started snoring even before he was fully horizontal.

"You're not doing that thing again, are you?"

Nate raised his eyebrows. "Thing?"

"That...BD...BM...that thing where you're thinking we can't save Eliot and it makes you freeze." Parker frowned.

"Oh." He suppressed a smile. "No. I'm not doing that."

"Then what are you doing? If we're all asleep, you have to be doing something."

"I will be. I promise."

She looked closely at him, and Nate wondered if this was how locks felt when she appeared.

"You're not supposed to freeze."

Nate nodded. "I know that. I'm sorry."

"No, it's okay. We all freeze sometimes. But you usually only freeze for forty-five seconds when it's really bad. Not a whole hour and a half. And that did gave Hardison time to figure out where we were going, but still. It was weird."

Nate blinked. "You've timed how long I freeze for?"

"Yeah?" She shrugged. "Sophie freezes for twenty seconds but only when she's not actively grifting – she never freezes when she's grifting – Eliot freezes for five seconds if he doesn't have a concussion and thirteen if he does, and Hardison freezes for twenty-two seconds if he's grifting and about seven if he's on his computer."

Nate didn't stop the corners of his mouth from turning up. "And how long do you freeze for?"

"Eighteen seconds or however long my rope is."

Nate was sure there was some kind of metaphor in that. He filed the information away in his head to consider later.

"Well, this was something different."

"Yeah. We didn't have Eliot to fix you."

"Eliot doesn't fix me," Nate said, almost without thinking about it. "If anything, Sophie pulls me out of it when I get...distracted."

"No." Now Parker was looking at him like he was a particularly dim puppy – or Maggie. "Sophie fixes you when you're brooding and doing that solo drinking thing all night. But when we're on a job and somebody needs to reboot your brain, it's usually Eliot. He kinda punches your lights on again."

Nate wanted to argue with that, but he found himself stopping. In a crisis, when things had gone to hell, it might be Sophie who kept Nate grounded, he knew that – but Parker was right. It was Eliot who spurred him back into action more often than not. Eliot who knew exactly what to say, or what to ask, or even how to glare, and it made Nate's brain go clear and quiet so he could think again.

Parker leaned forward and poked Nate's shoulder.

"Ha! I did it, too! Okay, now I can nap and you won't freeze." And she flopped onto the giant bed, tucked her head under a pillow, and apparently went straight to sleep.

Nate ran his hands through his hair, shaking his head. At this rate, he might never completely understand Parker.

But that didn't make her any less insightful.

Damn.

Nate turned back to the sitting room and surrounded himself with Hardison's two laptops and three notepads. Later they would buy a printer so he could put up all the relevant information on a wall, but for now he could work with his notes. Yellow notepads and pens worked just as well in a pinch.

Nate skimmed through the information Hardison had already gathered on their primary target, the lead Russian who had orchestrated everything – Pavel Tretiak, known internationally as 'Borzoi' after a type of Russian Wolfhound. The files on Borzoi were extensive from what Hardison had grabbed off however-many different systems; he was a well known underground figure, but only a few agencies had ever matched a picture and real identity to the Borzoi of the Russian mob. Pavel Tretiak was a successful property owner and broker with holdings in several different countries, connections to diplomatic and political entities the world over, and a distinguished military past. Borzoi, on the other hand, was was a clever, elusive, dirty player for the Russians, moving drugs, people, and weapons across borders with impunity.

From what Nate could see, Pavel Tretiak and Borzoi lived almost completely separate lives. It was only because Hardison was Hardison that Nate was sure they were the same person at all.

But this was the man who had taken Eliot and Molly, so this was the man Nate was going to take apart, piece by piece.

The more he read on the target, the more plans he invented and dismissed just as quickly. There was no merit in approaching Pavel Tretiak, after all – the man had put too much into maintaining his reputation as a businessman and not a criminal. No amount of blackmail or grifting was going to make Tretiak flinch without Eliot present in the opening gambit to sell it.

Which meant they had to meet Borzoi on his own terms.

But the problem was that Nate wasn't quite sure he could lead the team in pretending to be the sorts of clients currently lining up on the deep web to buy Borzoi's 'merchandise.' Hardison's stint as the 'Ice Man' had proved that there was a significant gap between what his team could present and what they really knew how to do. Sophie had the best chance of faking a role as an international criminal convincingly enough, but without knowing who else was going to be involved, there was no way to be certain she wouldn't be blown the instant she walked in the room. The same went for himself. They'd run up against too many mobs, gangs, criminals, and big players like Damien Moreau to be certain they wouldn't be recognized by someone.

There was always the option of a straight-up rescue attempt, assuming they could figure out where Borzoi was keeping Eliot and Molly, but that was even more fraught with disaster. Parker might be able to sneak into the most well-guarded buildings on the planet, but she couldn't fight her way through a hail of bullets. And he couldn't send her alone, and he couldn't send the others with her. That sort of fight was exactly what Nate had spent years keeping Sophie and Hardison and Parker from having to face in the first place.

Nate needed his Hitter.

Damn Borzoi to hell.

He was looking through public ownership records, trying to identify a list of possible places Borzoi could be keeping Eliot and Molly when his phone buzzed.

Nate peered over his shoulder through the open door to see if Parker or Hardison had heard, but all he saw was feet and a pile of blankets. The other door was shut, Sophie presumably sleeping in there as well.

Nate picked up his phone and felt his blood run cold at the simple text.

"Hello Nate."

-==OOO==-

Nate accepted the glass, perching on the edge of the chair in the corner of the hotel bar, keeping his back to the wall and his eyes on every possible entrance.

"Fancy meeting you here," Sterling said, smirking.

"Yeah." Nate threw back the shot. "What do you want?"

"Oh, not much." Sterling was doing his very best to look casual and relaxed. "Just thought I'd take some time. See the sights. You know how it is."

His false nonchalance fooled Nate not at all. He'd never been close to Jim Sterling, but he knew the man all too well.

"Since I've only been here for about three hours, I'm assuming you've been on my tail since Boston."

"Not exactly." Sterling leaned back. "I was...in the neighborhood. Got a little heads-up from an informant that one of my old friends was in town." He shrugged. "Figured I should pay a little visit. Make sure any American citizens aren't in over their heads in this...politically unstable situation."

Nate's patience was running thin. It usually did around Sterling. "I'll be sure to alert the State Department if I need help. Was that it?"

"Not quite." Sterling leaned on the table. "Tell me, Nate. Where exactly is your little guard dog, Eliot Spencer?"

Nate forgot how to breathe.

Sterling's lazy smirk widened. "Or...in fact, is it possible that you don't know?"

"Sterling."

"Is it possible," Sterling blithely ignored the threat in Nate's growl, "that the only reason you're here at all is because you're...looking for your lost puppy?"

Nate swallowed with an effort.

"Because if you are," Sterling said, voice smooth and deadly, "I'm afraid you might be too late. The dogcatchers down here are...very efficient."

"What exactly do you mean by that?" Nate had to force the words through grit teeth.

"Well." Sterling was openly enjoying having Nate's full, undivided, and increasingly furious attention. "Imagine a puppy with...let's call it something of a reputation. Eventually that reputation's going to catch up to the poor little thing. And when the dogcatchers finally get their hooks in him..." He gave a downright evil smile. "You know what happens to bad dogs, Nate."

"Eliot's not dead." Nate managed to say it with conviction, and not whisper it with fear.

Sterling shrugged. "Unfortunately, we both know it's only a matter of time."

Nate clenched his hands. "What. Do. You. Want."

"Listen. I still owe you one, but I'm doing this for free." Sterling dropped the superior smile and sipped at his drink. "Your stunt in San Lorenzo may have cleared your slate, but Interpol is still very interested in the rest of your little group. And we're not the only ones. Don't be an idiot."

"Is that a threat in there somewhere?"

"Not yet," Sterling said, still calm and collected. "But it could be. I have enough right now to grab your three other puppies and put them on planes to some places that would love to adopt them. Don't throw their lives away for somebody who's already dead. And who probably wasn't worth saving in the first place."

Nate closed his eyes. It took every ounce of his self-control not to flip the table over and smash Sterling's head into the nearest wall.

"Seems I've hit a nerve," Sterling said.

Nate dragged in a breath around shaking that seemed it would choke him.

"Let's keep this simple, then, shall we?" Sterling tipped a measure into the glass at Nate's elbow as confidently as if they were chatting over a chessboard, and not as if Nate were barely keeping himself from homicidal urges. "Take your little group and head back to the States, and I'll pretend I never saw you. Do that, and I might even look into the problem of your little puppy myself."

Nate pushed his eyes open. "Do you know where Eliot is?"

"No." Nate could see the honesty in it. "And in this cesspool of a city, you won't find him, either." He raised his glass as if in a toast. "Seems a waste, don't you think?"

"Looking for him?"

"Getting yourself killed, you and your team." Sterling met Nate's eyes with flint and steel in his own. "Isn't it Eliot's job to keep that from happening? And you'd throw it all away. For a man who's probably dead...and should be if he isn't yet."

Nate rose, slowly. "Get out."

Sterling threw back the rest of his drink and stood, putting his hands in his pockets and affecting a boyish smile.

"Go home, Nate. Or I'll send my dogcatchers after your team." He had the audacity to wink. "If you want, I can even send you some names of people who could fill your vacancy. Of course, none of them will be quite as infamous as Eliot Spencer...but maybe that's not such a bad thing." He took two steps back. "I know I'd sleep better at night if you weren't putting all your faith in that murderer."

"Get. Out."

"Always a pleasure." Sterling gave a jaunty wave and turned to leave. "I'll give you two hours, Nate, before I sic my team on yours. Be gone when we come knocking."

Nate managed to hold still until Sterling was clear of the restaurant and out of sight.

Then he hurled his glass to the ground and Sterling's into the nearest wall.

-==OOO==-

"Everybody up!" Nate yelled as he slammed the door back into the hotel suite.

To the team's credit, the doorframe hadn't even stopped vibrating before the other three were awake and in the room, tense and ready.

"What is it, Nate?" Sophie asked. Other than her slightly-more-tousled-than-usual hair, she looked as put-together as always. Beside her, Hardison was poking at Parker's hair, which stuck up in multiple directions.

"Sterling's here," Nate said, and he didn't bother to keep the bite of his anger from his tone. "He...had some interesting things to say."

"Great, 'cause that's all we need on top of everything else," Hardison said. "Do we get a break? Something to make this whole thing slightly less deadly and impossible? No. We get Sterling creeping out of the woodwork. Perfect."

"What'd he want?" Parker asked.

Nate considered how much of the discussion he even wanted them to know, but just as quickly threw caution to the wind; they didn't have time for it.

"He told me if we don't give up on Eliot and clear out, he's going to arrest us."

Sophie shook her head. "Why bother? What's in it for him?"

"As if he could catch us," Parker said, snorting. Then she stopped. "Oh, wait. Evil Nate. Maybe he could catch us."

"Not a chance," Nate told her. "Honestly, I'm not sure what's in it for him at this point. He knew Eliot had been taken, though. Before I said anything about it."

He let out a breath.

"Sterling said that he thinks Eliot might already be dead. That we'll get ourselves killed if we keep trying."

Hardison rocked back on his heels. "And you believe him?"

"It's not about if I believe him," Nate said. "It's about what we have to do...for the sake of the team." He looked away for a moment. "Sterling being here changes the game. Makes it even more dangerous. Now it's not just Russians and guns. Now it's Interpol and somebody I might not be able to beat."

"You're suggesting we save ourselves?" Sophie asked. "Leave Eliot and run while we've got the chance?"

"I'm suggesting that this complicates things, and maybe we need to decide again if we're willing to take the risk now that the risk is coming from two sides."

"It's Eliot," Parker said, crossing her arms. "What else is there to talk about?"

Hardison nodded. "For real. And also? Sterling is scary, but he is not scarier than the mob. He's all Lawful Neutral, and you can always negotiate with Lawful Neutral. It's the Chaotic Evil you gotta watch out for."

"Nate," Sophie said. "What about Molly?"

"Sterling didn't mention her. At all. Didn't even reference her existence." Nate moved to stand over the little table covered with his notes and papers. "Which brings up a different question – how did he know about Eliot?"

"Well, that crap's all over the deep web now," Hardison said. "If Sterling's got anybody monitoring us, they'd have found it."

"And none of that mentions Molly. Right." Nate glanced over at his primary notebook. "But Hardison, just because they're selling Eliot doesn't mean they're being honest about it. Sterling has a point. He could already be dead. Borzoi's not the kind of guy to mess around with someone as dangerous as Eliot."

"Well, he was alive seven hours ago," Hardison returned. "And apparently pissed off as usual."

Nate had seen the picture Hardison had found of Eliot in chains and looking murderous, but not particularly worse for the wear. He shook his head, partly to dislodge the image of the strongest man he knew crouching on a filthy floor like a dog.

"Nate." Sophie moved as if to take his hand, but dropped it a moment later. "What else did Sterling say? Something's got you rattled. We always knew it was possible we'd be too late for Eliot."

"We won't, though," Parker said fiercely under her breath.

Sophie ignored her. "But that's not enough to have you reacting like this. Neither is Sterling threatening to arrest us again. That's not usually enough to make you blink. So what's different? What else did he tell you?"

Nate swallowed. "Sterling wanted me to be off-balance, so he said...some things about Eliot. About what kind of man he is."

"And you told him to shove it," Hardison said. "So skip past that part."

Nate gave Hardison a half-smile at that. "Sterling implied…" And we're not the only ones. "That this whole thing might be a setup. That Borzoi is looking to cash in on more than just Eliot. That we might all be at risk."

There was something else in what Sterling had said. Something else that poked at Nate, but he couldn't quite find it. Jim Sterling had always had a unique gift for throwing Nate's focus and making him claw it back in slow, tattered pieces. Especially when angry.

"Listen." Nate sat down on the nearest chair. "Eliot's job has always been the safety of this team. It's always been up to him to watch our backs and get us out of whatever we get into. But he's not here, so it's up to me to do that in his place. And...if Eliot were here right now, what do you think he'd be telling us?"

Sophie perched on the arm of the chair. "That we won't be any good for anyone if we get caught up in this web. That we have to stay safe, no matter what."

"And then," Hardison said, "like I told you before, he'd sneak off in the night and do the heroing on his own."

"Right."

Nate looked at his hands. Looked up at his team.

"I don't really know if I can protect you the way he would. I'll try, but if there's a trap here, we might be walking right into it. I think Sterling believes we can't do this without getting ourselves caught. And he might be right."

If it had been anybody else delivering that whisper of a warning, Nate might not have paid it any mind. But it was Sterling. And if Nate knew anything about his former partner, other than that he was still a complete and utter bastard, it was that Sterling did not underestimate threats.

"Do you really think Eliot would forgive any of us if one of us gets killed trying to save him?"

Sophie put her hand on Nate's arm, stroking it gently.

"No. You're right, Nate. I think he wouldn't. I think he would die to protect us."

"He would," Parker said. "But he can't. So this time, it's up to us to protect him."

"Yeah, but who's going to protect us in the meantime?" Nate asked her.

And Parker glared at him again, with that same aren't-you-so-stupid expression that was just as bracing and piercing as any of Eliot's open-your-mouth-and-prepare-to-eat-your-own-kidney glares. "So we all agree not to die. And we protect each other. And we get Eliot back and then he can be mad, but not too mad, because we'll all be safe. Right?"

"Parker." Hardison sighed. "It might not be that simple."

"Nothing's simple," she said. She looked back to Nate. "Except the only thing that matters."

Nate let out a breath. "Family again, Parker?"

"Family."

Nate chuckled. "Eliot's going to kill us all when he gets back. Especially me. For getting you all into this."

"But he'll be back," Hardison said. "So it's okay."

"You said we were going to steal an Eliot," Sophie said. She rose. "So let's quit talking about it and get to work. Eliot's not going to steal himself."

Nate smirked. "I wouldn't be too sure about that. But it's better if we beat him to it."

He reached for one of his notebooks and started to scribble.

"Okay. We've got less than two hours to clear out of here before Sterling comes knocking, so Hardison, start making other arrangements. We're going to need lots of them. In the meantime, let's talk about Phase One."

Chapter Text

"Eliot Spencer."

Eliot read the history of the man in front of him in one look and shifted his weight minutely to the balls of his feet.

"Eliot?" Molly whispered from behind him.

The Russian stepped into the cell and pulled the door shut behind himself. This wasn't a local errand boy dropping off food. This was someone high in the organization, probably Gogol's second- or third-in-command. He was built strong and broad, and his tattered sleeveless shirt revealed dozens of Russian gang tattoos, each worse than the last.

"You put my brother in the hospital and then prison," he said.

Eliot already knew that. He recognized the family resemblance. He only hoped Molly didn't – this man's brother was one of the ones who had held her in the house of mirrors.

"What do you want?" Eliot asked, keeping his voice low and menacing.

The man smiled. "Payback."

"Come get it, then."

"Eliot, no!" Molly moved as if to block him again. This time Eliot caught her with an elbow and pushed her behind him and into the corner of the room.

"Stay out of this, Botasky."

"She's a very pretty girl." The Russian moved closer, circling Eliot's position in the dim room. "If you want, I could take my payback out of her instead of you."

Molly made a terrified sound.

Eliot met the man's eyes with utter coldness. "Go to hell."

"You first."

The Russian charged.

Eliot dodged the initial blow, crouching and spinning, putting the chain that tethered him in the Russian's way and tangling his feet in it. Eliot finished the pivot, bringing up the hard point of an elbow into the man's jaw.

But the man was skilled, experienced, and not hobbled by chains.

Hits rained down on Eliot's head, which he couldn't block since he couldn't raise his arms fully. He managed to turn and get a few of them across the shoulders and back, but that couldn't stop the blows that sent blood flowing down his skin and birthed a ringing in his head. Unable to straighten up, Eliot could only endure the assault from above and wait for his opponent to reveal a weakness he could exploit.

The Russian lifted a leg to kick at Eliot, and Eliot grabbed his chance. He caught the oncoming foot in the length of chain binding his hands to his feet, yanking them both badly off-balance. They crashed together to the floor, but Eliot was already curled up protectively. He rolled with the fall and put himself on top of his opponent. Eliot drove his fists into the man's nose and followed it up with a knee to the stomach.

It would have been enough to fell most of the people who ever went up against Eliot, but this Russian, like his brother, was not so easily dispatched.

The Russian grabbed the length of chain leading to the grate and hauled it up, whipping Eliot across the face with it. Eliot dropped, stunned.

Blood roared in his ears. There was a painful bloom of force against his chest that repeated a few times before all went quiet but for his pounding heart and his ragged breathing. He hurt, and his eyes were having trouble focusing.

But even above the rush of his pulse filling up his hearing, Eliot could make out the frightened cry of Molly.

"Eliot! Help!"

A dark chuckle.

"Please, Eliot! Please get up!"

"No. He's going to lie there, helpless – and watch. Come here, little girl."

Molly screamed.

And a different Eliot rose from the floor.

Eliot had always been a man of many faces, many methods, many perspectives. There was the Soldier who had left his home with a flag on his shoulder, later jaded but no less dedicated. There was the Operative who walked with hands drenched in blood and fire in his wake. There was the Commander who knew how to keep his men alive while pitting them against death. There was the Retrieval Specialist with a reputation for being unbeatable. There was the Hitter who defended his team and never let them down.

But there was someone else who lived deep in Eliot's skin. A spirit of violence that screamed with bloodlust. A monster who defiled and murdered and destroyed without regret or hesitation. The Devil himself, apocalyptic and unstoppable.

It was a side of himself Eliot had locked away and buried, only to be called upon in the most dire of circumstances. But he did not need to call it now; Molly's vulnerability and terror summoned it from its sleep into full wakefulness.

Like a berserkers of old, he rose heedless of injury or restraint, utterly mad and hungry for blood.

Eliot fell upon the Russian in a red-soaked haze, as out of control as if he had been drugged. Exceptional control was all that kept Eliot from the demon in his soul on any normal day or in any standard fight, and in this moment, it was broken.

Not by his own injury or blood or fear, but by a protectiveness that surpassed everything and went straight to his core.

The same protectiveness that carried Eliot through a burning warehouse with more than a dozen lives snuffed out in his wake. The same that would kill or die without pause for those lives that meant far more than his own ever could. In spite of the absence of those four precious souls, one child in danger, screaming in terror, was more than enough to draw it forth once more.

And the Devil was screaming, too.

YOU DARE THREATEN WHAT IS MINE?

I WILL SEE YOU DIE!

Only when Eliot felt a thin pair of arms surrounding his shoulders and cold wetness on his neck did he freeze, breathe, and awaken to himself once more.

What he found before him was as bad as the nightmare that had consumed him.

The Russian under his hands was more meat than man. His face had been obliterated by repeated smashing of chain and manacle and fist. His chest was caved in on one side.

But he still breathed.

Molly was clinging to his back, whispering something over and over again, and it took Eliot several moments to realize she was pleading for him to stop.

Eliot couldn't look at her. He closed his eyes. "He's already dead, Molly. Let me finish it. Or he'll...it'll take him a while."

Molly vanished from his back and he heard a muffled sob.

But he couldn't turn, didn't dare. He had too much to think and feel, and he could not let himself do either as he braced the weight of his body on the Russian's chest, took the ruined head between his hands, and snapped the thick neck.

Eliot only realized as he crawled off the man that he had left another bloody ruin in addition to the man's face, one that stained the front of his pants nearly to his knees.

And somewhere inside, the Devil smiled in pure satisfaction.

Eliot sat heavily on the ground, staring at his hands. They looked like he had stuck them in a vat of ketchup. Or paint.

He would have sold his soul to the first bidder who could turn that redness into nothing but paint.

He also was still bleeding from a cut on the head, and at least one finger was broken, to say nothing of his split knuckles and a dozen other bad bruises across his body and the echo of ringing in his ears.

"Molly." It would have been easier to lie down and die than speak to her now, with this evidence of his curse all over him. "I'm sorry, Molly."

He glanced through his blood-streaked hair to where she had curled up in a corner, hugging herself and crying.

Eliot stared at his hands again. This was why he hated touching people, and hated being touched. This, right here. Because he would never be clean of all the blood he had spilled in his lifetime. Because, even when he laid his hands on a person without intending violence, the blood seemed to seep onto them anyway. No one could be clean once they'd touched Eliot. His sins leaked over everything he touched.

Eliot couldn't blame Molly for being terrified. Even for hating him. It was the safest, sanest choice she could possibly make.

But he still had to protect her.

"Molly." He kept his face turned away from her. "They're going to find him. I need you to get behind me when they come." His throat went dry and tight and he had to swallow twice before he could say, "You don't have to get near me until then, though."

It burned like a knife in the gut, but Eliot forced himself to get up and act. To fall back on tactics and efficiency and and the work of survival – if only to muffle the howling inside himself.

Almost mechanically, Eliot searched the Russian's pockets for anything useful. He didn't find a phone or keys, but there was a fair-sized pocket-knife, a wallet with several IDs, and some cash. Eliot stowed those in his own pockets. Then he tore a few strips of material from a clean bit of the dead man's shirt and bound up his knuckles and his head as best he could. He also took the man's watch.

Almost thirty hours. Eliot's internal clock had only been off by about two hours. He and Molly had been locked in a Venezuelan basement for more than a full day.

And every hour that passed without Parker bursting through the door, or Nate or Sophie sauntering through using a fake accent, was a good hour as far as Eliot was concerned. His desperate ploy must have worked, or at least slowed them down.

The auction couldn't be far off now. Gogol had had almost a full day and a half to get the word out about his prize. Eliot figured it couldn't be more than another twelve or twenty-four hours before he would be put up in a meat market in front of however-many people who wanted his blood.

But, as long as Eliot went up there with no sign of Nate, and without Gogol gloating at him, he would call it a win.

However, he didn't intend to let things get that far. He just needed to get Gogol in range and take him apart.

He made himself look at the corpse on the floor with controlled, emotionless consideration.

Maybe this would be the thing to force Gogol to return. Honestly, they both should have expected it. Eliot had tangled with too many Russians too many times not to run into one with a grudge. There was no way Gogol hadn't known the identities of the people Eliot had taken down that day in the carnival that started all this. And that was outside any other interactions Eliot had had with the Russian mob on his own – and those interactions went back years.

It had probably been unavoidable for someone to decide to take revenge via a beat-down or worse. Eliot hadn't considered it because it wasn't worth considering. There were always people out there looking to get back at him for the life he lived and the things he'd done. After all, some of them were bargaining for his life right now. But those without the cash to participate – they would find their own ways.

People always found ways to get revenge, it seemed.

He realized that Molly was still crying. Suddenly concerned, Eliot lifted his head. "Molly? Did he hurt you?"

Nate, if I'm engaged…

Do your worst.

And now he had. "Molly. I need you to tell me if you're okay."

Molly unburied her face from her arms, her knees still tight to her chest. Her color was all wrong, and her eyes were wide with panic. The bruise from Gogol's slap had faded to a thick yellow color, but nothing new marred her face.

However, Eliot could see red marks from fingers on the nearer of her arms.

"He didn't…" Molly gulped. "You…" Her voice failed her and she pulled her knees even tighter. She shook her head and closed her eyes. "He didn't get anywhere. Before..."

Eliot nodded. He started to move, telegraphing every adjustment and shifting as slowly as if he were enticing a bird to sit beside him. He pushed the dead body into an unused corner of the room. Then he planted himself there, between her and it, as far away as the chain would let him go.

"I'll meet you in the middle when they come," he said. "You don't have to get near."

Molly swallowed. "Get near that...or you?"

Eliot ducked his head. "Near this. You...I promise I won't hurt you. But you have to let me protect you. Even if…"

He trailed off. There was no point in voicing the rest of it now. If she hated him, if she couldn't trust him, if she couldn't stand him – none of that mattered. He would keep her safe no matter what she thought, and no matter what it cost him.

Molly nodded and put her face back on her knees, wrapping her arms around her head.

But he heard her whisper, "Okay, Perky."

-==OOO==-

It took four hours for someone to come down. Their surprise that the door was unlocked was quickly forgotten by the shock of the dead body.

Eliot had debated about twice a minute during that whole time whether or not he should send Molly out, maybe see if she could escape. He was pretty sure she had forgotten the door was unlocked, and he was grateful for it. Because, while maybe Molly could have found a key to free him if she did head out on her own, in the last four hours Molly hadn't so much as looked at him. If she ran out there now, this upset, who knew what she would get into? And if she was so distressed by him, by what he had done, could he really ask her to find a key to free him?

But that was not nearly as important as the fact that he didn't dare let her out of his sight. Not now. If she'd been caught before this, they might have beaten her, but they would still value her for the hold she gave them over her father.

But now Eliot had killed one of them.

There was every possibility Gogol would hold true to his threat and they would punish Molly for his actions.

Eliot didn't care in the slightest if they punished him, but he would not let them hurt Molly.

This was Eliot's fault. For killing. For frightening her. For failing her in the first place. For not protecting her as he had promised.

When the door clicked open, Eliot waited exactly long enough for a very surprised, unfamiliar goon to see the blood and the body, and then made a half-leap, half-sprint towards Molly.

He fully expected her to flinch away from him.

But she didn't. Molly dove at the same time he did, settling behind him as if he weren't streaked with blood. She kept her head down, sheltering in his shadow. But this time she curled her fingers into the fabric of his shirt.

Eliot didn't know if she was holding on, or holding him back.

He decided it didn't matter either way.

"Tell your boss this guy was about to break our deal," Eliot said. That wasn't precisely accurate to the exact terms Gogol had laid out, but it was close enough. "And get rid of him before he starts to smell."

Molly gagged behind him.

The goon was staring at Eliot as if he were a rabid dog.

"Go!" Eliot yelled, startling them both. "Tell your boss that this sack of rotting camel piss deserves exactly what he got, and I'll do the same to anybody else who messes with her!"

The goon dropped several bottles of water and a bowl of food and fled, slamming and locking the door behind him.

Eliot expected Molly to bolt the instant the door shut, but she didn't. He held perfectly still, waiting for her to move.

Molly's move was to lean her forehead on his back and let out a trembling sigh.

"So...how soon before we can get out of here, do you think?" she asked.

Eliot blinked. He didn't turn because that would dislodge her, but he made a questioning noise.

"You still need Gogol to come here, right? Do you think...he'll come now?"

"God you're a sharp kid," Eliot said without meaning to. He cleared his throat. "I don't know. He might. It depends on how soon they're going to sell me off, I think. And how important that guy was."

Molly nodded against his back.

"You okay?" Eliot asked.

"No." But her grip on his shirt tightened. "Definitely going to need therapy now."

"You were getting therapy either way," Eliot told her, utterly serious.

She huffed something that might have been a laugh in another life. "I guess that's probably true."

"Molly...I never wanted you to see…" He trailed off and shook his head. "I'm sorry."

"I know." She shoved her nose into one of his ribs.

"It's okay if you're scared of me."

She made a sound he couldn't quite identify. "I'm sorry, Eliot."

"What do you have to be sorry for?"

"I...I couldn't stop him. And he...so you…"

Eliot turned slowly, giving her every opportunity to move away. But she didn't. She let him turn and looked up at him with eyes that were red and swollen and trembling on the very edge of panic.

"This was not your fault." He met her gaze and held it. "What happened here was his fault and mine. You didn't do anything wrong. At all. All the blame…" He took a breath. "Lay it on me, kid. Not on yourself."

New tears grew in Molly's eyes, but she shook her head and squared her jaw. "Can I...lay it on him instead? Because...I think...I think I would rather hate him than you."

Eliot's chest filled with too many feelings to parse. Guilt, shame, sorrow, rage – they cartwheeled together in a rush as choppy and fast as any carnival ride. He could only nod at her.

"You do whatever you gotta to survive. Because that's the only thing that matters. If you get out alive and safe...then you work on fixing the rest of it." And because he couldn't be less than honest with her, not after he'd promised, he added, "I'm just...sorry you have to survive me, too. I never wanted that for you."

"I know."

But this time when Molly started to cry, she put her arms around Eliot's middle and wept into his stomach.

Eliot gave her a full two minutes before he dared hug her back.

"I'm sorry, Botasky. But I'll get you out of here. I promise."

"I'm sorry I'm scared," she said between hiccups. "I shouldn't be scared of you...but I am."

"It's okay." Eliot paused, an ugly smirk tugging at his mouth. "Most people would tell you that I'm probably the most dangerous person you've ever met."

That surprised her enough to look up at him. "Are you?"

"Dangerous?" He nodded. "Hell yeah. But not to you. Never to you."

"Are you the most dangerous?"

Eliot couldn't quite stop the bark of laughter. "It depends, I guess."

"On what?"

"On if you're scared of getting hurt, or getting destroyed. Because I can hurt people, and I can kill 'em." He waited until her momentary flare of terror faded again before he said, "But I can't destroy people as well as Nate Ford."

"He's more dangerous than you?"

"At his game? Yeah. Not at mine."

"What's his game?"

"Chess."

"And what's yours?"

Eliot just looked at her. Molly glanced to the corner of the room and shivered. But almost as quickly, some of the tension drained out of her.

"That's who they're after, right? You're bait for him?"

"Yeah."

Molly turned her head to his arm and made a noise between a laugh and a sob. "These guys must have a death wish."

Eliot didn't bother to keep himself from snorting. "If they didn't before, they will now." When Molly looked up, he gave her a tiny smile. "Because Nate's going to make them wish they'd never been born."

"Assuming they don't kill him."

"They won't." Eliot felt steel and cold creep into his gaze, so he lifted it away from her. "Or I'll make them wish I'd only killed them."

Molly shivered again, but hugged him tighter.

"You're really scary. You know that?" But she sounded almost fond as she said it.

"Yeah," he said, totally sincere. "I've been told that before."

"I'm glad you're on our side, Perky."

"Yes." And he crushed her against him for a moment. "I am. And don't you ever doubt it."

-==OOO==-

With the extra water the goon dropped, there was enough left over after rationing for Eliot to get the worst of the blood off his hands and face and hair. Molly actually cleaned the cut on his head with a gentle touch that didn't quite shake.

And they both ate the food they were given, though Eliot could see it turned Molly's stomach to do so. But it was only the second time anyone had fed them since they'd arrived, and hunger proved stronger than her disgust.

Afterwards, Molly stayed by his side, keeping him between her and the dead body, though they didn't speak.

Except for when Molly asked Eliot to "play the shirt game," which was code for Eliot to yank his shirt up around his face like an awkward scarf so she could stand over the grate without him watching her. She talked plenty then to cover the sounds of what she was doing, mostly berating him for being a guy and having it easier, and inventing new insults for the grate named Dexter.

And they could both laugh at that, even though it sounded more like tears.

Another ten hours passed.

This time when the door opened, it banged wide in one quick motion and a crowd of stern-faced men with guns entered. Eliot pulled Molly behind him, calculating angles and possibilities.

"Where's your boss?" he asked.

"You will see him soon," said the one in front. "And then you will say goodbye." He glanced at the body at the end of the room which was not quite yet beginning to smell, but the signs of bloat were clear. "I hope whoever takes you makes you pay for this."

"I'm sure they will," Eliot said. He met the eyes of every man willing to face him. "She comes with me. She stays at my side and under my protection until the deal is done."

"Or we all die?" The man smiled. "Yes. This I know. She is the only reason we hold you at all. We will tell your new master to acquire you a...companion. It makes you far easier to control, Eliot Spencer."

Eliot's rage went white hot, but he kept it in check. For now, he had to play along. Only a little while longer.

Eliot pulled Molly into the circle of his arms when a couple of men moved close. They unlocked the chain that tethered him to the grate, but kept the others in place. When they gestured, Eliot went, shuffling along and hunched over, Molly awkwardly stumbling with him.

"Could you find a worse way to do this?" she asked in a whisper close to his face as they exited the room and had to navigate a staircase with an awkward, unbalanced gait that forced them both to half-crawl in turn.

"Yeah," Eliot whispered back. "We could be unconscious again, so don't give them any ideas."

Molly rolled her eyes and held onto a splintery railing when her feet threatened to get caught up in Eliot's chains. It took them several times longer to get out of the basement than it had taken to get down there, but Molly was quietly grateful. Shielded in his arms, she was practically invisible to the crowd of men with guns whose eyes made her want to shake apart inside.

Eliot had actually killed someone for her. And when she wasn't caught up in the horror of the 'had actually killed someone' part, she felt very safe – because she knew that he would do it again if he had to, even though it had made his eyes look dead and his face seem wrong.

Though she did find it strange that she could feel both safe with him and frightened of him at the same time – but maybe it wasn't too strange after all.

Up the stairs and through a hallway led to a tin shed serving as a garage and a dingy, half-rusty van. Eliot had to release Molly to climb in, but once he was seated on the bare metal of the floor, he lifted his arms once more and she crawled back into them. He held her better than a seatbelt.

"Watch them, Botasky," he whispered to her. "I need to listen."

For the duration of the drive, while Molly watched the crowd of thugs in the car, Eliot made a mental map of where they were going and where they'd been. He didn't know the streets of Caracas well enough to follow it directly, but he knew they had passed from one side of the city around its edges and were now ascending a mountain. He wasn't surprised. If he was going to be hosting a live auction for who-knew-how-many rival gangs, factions, possibly governments, and probably some of the worst scum of the world, Eliot knew he would put them in a secure location away from the city where it wouldn't be immediately obvious if a small war broke out.

Eliot only opened his eyes when they passed through a gate, taking in what clues he could from what was visible through the windshield about the big manor house that was to be the site of the auction. Gogol would be here for sure, and probably soon.

Getting out of the van meant he had to let Molly go again, and Eliot was not surprised when a few of the thugs took their chance to rough him up, either for what he'd done to their friend-slash-ally-slash-gang-brother, or just because it was a day that ended in 'y' and that's what people like them did. He flashed Molly a smile and didn't fight back too much, even as he picked a few pockets while they tossed him around between themselves.

But, soon enough, Eliot and Molly were led into the manor house through a back door and down into yet another basement – this one with a clear area for a wine collection and another for prisoners; Eliot was sure this must be a base for human trafficking, where Gogol held his chattel and where he sold them. There was no other reason for such a nice manor house to have an honest-to-god dungeon complete with yet more chains.

What Eliot did not expect upon being hauled into the basement prison was for a familiar figure to look up at him from the floor and wave, showing off some chains of his own.

Nate gave a cheerful smile. "Hi Eliot."

Chapter Text

Nate assessed Eliot while the crowd of thugs positioned him across the room, linking the Hitter's chains to a heavy ring embedded in the floor. He couldn't see much of Molly, given that Eliot had her in something of a permanent bear-hug. But she was here, and that was enough.

Since Molly was with Eliot, he had protected her. Water would run uphill and the sun would engulf the Earth before he let harm come to her. There was simply no other possibility.

But, after so many hours of worry, finally Nate could see his Hitter clearly – and he did not like what he saw.

He had expected a certain amount of abuse heaped on Eliot's body – he'd been captive too long for anything else. Scraped knuckles, a couple of bruises on the face, tightness to the chest or stomach, all of that was normal, nothing out of the ordinary on any given job.

Which was not to say Nate was okay with the fact that Eliot got hurt all the time, because he was not.

But Nate trusted Eliot, trusted him to know his limits, trusted him to handle himself. Because Nate had known, almost from the beginning, that Eliot could have ended most of his fights without a scratch – if he was willing to strike killing bows. So every bruise, every cut, except when up against genuinely exceptional fighters, was testament to Eliot's refusal to kill unless necessary. Testament to his willingness to fight conservatively, and accept some pain and injury in return, to let his opponents live.

This time, Eliot looked like he had been through a warzone.

His clothing was spattered with blood, and his sleeves were soaked in it all the way above the elbows. There was a torn scrap of material bound around his head, but it did not entirely hide the purpling lump that spread over Eliot's skin. His face was several different colors, with one particularly brutal bruise along one whole cheek that had the pattern of the same chains that clanked from his wrists when he moved. His hands were bound with more strips of material, and the littlest finger of one hand had been splinted to the ring finger, clearly broken.

And under all the bruising and mottled blood, Eliot was pale, his eyes haunted.

Nate didn't have to ask or even guess – he knew. This time, Eliot had taken a life.

Nate wondered if it made him a terrible person that he felt a mixture of pity and gratitude – pity for what Eliot would suffer, and gratitude that Eliot was alive – while feeling nothing at all about his victim. But Nate didn't give a damn about the faceless whoever that had done such harm to his Hitter. He would rather Eliot kill five more of them and live.

The guards finished checking Eliot's chains and left, one getting in a final punch aimed at Eliot's head. Nate didn't bother to warn him; Eliot shifted at the last second and took the hit on his shoulder.

Molly made an indignant noise in Eliot's arms, but he shushed her before she could do more than squawk. Nate didn't miss, however, that she hissed "Coward" after the thugs when they'd closed the door and latched it.

Only then did Eliot unfold from his protective posture and let Molly slide out from his hug.

And then Eliot turned an incinerating glare on Nate. Nate was pretty sure that glare could kill all on its own.

"What the hell are you doing here?"

The anger actually made Nate feel better. Whatever else had happened, his Hitter was still fighting. Of course, it was aimed at him right now, but that was better than the alternative.

"What does it look like?" Nate replied, smirking. "Working on my tan?"

Eliot's face went stonier. "Molly, cover your ears."

She blinked at him. "Why?"

"Because what I'm going to say is not appropriate for you."

Molly grinned wobbily at him. "Then I definitely want to hear it!"

"Brat."

"Meathead."

Nate was surprised at the shade of relief that filtered into Eliot's expression so quickly anyone else except Sophie would have missed it. The banter seemed natural, not forced at all. Nate wondered if the blood on Eliot's sleeves had made it difficult for them to be this easy with one another, if whatever Eliot had done had broken Molly as much as it had broken Eliot to do it.

But Molly was staying close to Eliot, close enough for him to grab her again if necessary, so whatever had come between them, it was not stronger than what had been there in the first place.

"Molly," Nate said, "could you do me a favor?"

"Don't," Eliot said. "Make him sit there in his chains and wait. Serves him right. Damn idiot."

Molly looked between them. Then she tipped her head at Nate.

Nate could see fear in her, lines of it in her young face, but also a rebellious spark that had yet to be extinguished. She regarded him with the full teenage arrogance of her age.

"You really are an idiot, you know."

Nate smiled. "The only idiot here is Eliot, if he really thought we wouldn't come after him."

Eliot growled. "It's going to get you killed, Nate. You and them."

"Maybe." Nate made a show of stretching out on the floor as if it were a throne. "But not today."

"I hate you so much right now."

"Noted. Now, Molly. I still need that favor."

Eliot let out a sigh that was more grunt than huff and turned away. Molly took that as a cue, or permission, to cross the floor to Nate.

She bent low beside him. To Nate's surprise, she whispered, "There's a price on your head. Eliot's worried about it. Gogol said he was going to kill you."

Nate's eyebrows went up. "Gogol?"

"The Russian boss."

"Ah." Raising his voice, Nate said, "His real name's Pavel Tretiak, if you want to know. Also known as Borzoi."

"Call him whatever you want. He's still going to kill you, Nate." Eliot's words were not exasperated now – they were deadly serious.

Nate swallowed. But he turned his gaze back to Molly, keeping his words loud enough to be heard across the cell.

"I've already accounted for it. I'll be fine. But I need you to take these." And he held up a closed hand.

Molly reached out and Nate dropped two earbuds into her palm.

"One's for you, one for him."

Molly scowled. "It's not supposed to be that easy to sneak stuff like this into a prison. Didn't they search you or something?"

At that, Eliot's face bent slightly and he chuckled. "I'm sure they did, Botasky. But Nate's got more tricks than anybody but Parker. He could hide a tank and nobody would see it if he didn't want them to." Then Eliot eyed Nate. "But you better not have hidden that anyplace...unsanitary."

"No, I didn't," Nate said quickly before Molly dropped them. "Now, I've got three very silent people in my head waiting to hear you on comms, and if you don't get with the program, I think they may explode."

Nate smirked at an offended squeak that had to be Sophie because Parker was too busy staying quiet.

Molly picked one of the two and tucked it into an ear, making her way back across the floor.

Nate watched Eliot closely as he took the earbud from her. Eliot stared at it for three seconds longer than necessary. Nate wondered what Parker would say about that.

It felt, oddly, like a goodbye.

But he put the earbud in anyway.

"Hey."

Three sighs sounded in his ear.

"Man, you have no idea how good it is to hear your voice," Hardison said, talking just a little too fast to be anything but frantic. "Seriously."

"Are you all right, Eliot?" Sophie asked.

"Fine."

"Is that 'fine' like 'normal fine' or fine like 'Eliot fine' because sometimes that includes a lot." Parker's voice was very low, but otherwise completely typical for her.

"He got beat up a bunch," Molly said. "But he's okay." Then she looked at Eliot. "Right?"

"I'm fine, seriously. Parker – what are you doing?"

Nate knew Eliot wouldn't miss it anyway.

"Nothing."

"Try again."

"I'm just checking a layout."

"What layout, Parker?"

"Um."

"You're here. All of you." Eliot's glare went back to Nate, and intensified to somewhere around DEFCON 3 levels. "And exactly how many terrorists, gangs, and dictators are already here?"

"No dictators," Hardison said. "I mean, a couple of their lackeys, but this isn't really the kind of party for heads of state, you know?"

Nate needed to cut off the imminent explosion – fast.

"Look. You knew we would come for you. And you're mad that we're here, but you can't do anything about that now, so just work with us, okay? I do, in fact, have a plan."

"Oh. Really." Eliot's voice was icy cold. "And what plan is that? Get yourself captured by the same guy who wants to kill you and sell your body to whoever put a bounty on your head? Walk Sophie in as, what, some kind of underworld agent? Hardison as an evil sheik? Parker as...I don't even know."

"I'm not grifting," Parker said. "I'm working on escape routes."

That was the right answer, but it didn't deter Eliot's growing fury one bit. He actually shifted position, from sitting to crouching, looking like a predator ready to spring.

"Listen to me. This ain't a game. This ain't a con. This is a situation I wouldn't walk into without a full military extraction ready. There's not a person in this building besides us who wouldn't put a bullet in all our heads without a second thought."

"What do you want us to do, Eliot?" Sophie asked, sharp and annoyed. "Back off? Wait for you to get yourself killed instead?"

"Backing off would be a good start," Eliot said, ignoring her ire. "You three get clear and wait. I'll take care of things here."

"It's too late for that," Nate said. "Like it or not, we have to see this through."

"Molly." Eliot's head swung to her. "You interested in kicking some sense into him?"

Molly glanced between them. "What happened to not weakening yourself when you might need to escape?"

Eliot gave a very not-nice smile. "First, Nate'll be able run no matter how hard you kick him. Second, it would be worth it. And maybe teach him a lesson."

Nate wasn't sure if he should feel pleased that Eliot had given him something of a compliment on his stamina – at least insofar as that compliment extended to his abilities to endure the kick of a teenage girl – or annoyed that Molly was actually considering it.

"Knock it off." He eyed Molly. "And don't even think about it. We need to start preparing for the next phase of this plan."

"Nate." Eliot's voice was just as angry, if not moreso, but his tone had dropped. Cold and intent and serious. "This is bad. You need to get out right now. Not in an hour. Not in ten minutes. Right now."

"And what about you?" Nate shot back. "I'm not leaving you here, Eliot."

"You're going to have to."

"Why?" Hardison asked, genuinely curious. "Why can't you both just get out together?"

Eliot's expression shut down completely and he didn't answer.

"Molly, dear." Sophie's voice was warm and coaxing. "Is there anything you can tell us about what has happened so far that would help us understand the situation better?"

Molly looked at Nate, then at Eliot, then into a random corner, as if speaking to Sophie there.

"I...I don't think I should tell you."

"Oh? Why not? We're Eliot's friends too, you know."

"Yeah, I know. But that's why." She swallowed. "I don't want to make it harder for Eliot to protect all of you. It's been...hard enough for him to protect just me."

Eliot gave her a smile, a real one. "Thanks, kid."

"Any time, Perky."

Parker gave a soft snort. "Ooh, she shut Sophie down."

"I'll note it on the calendar," Hardison said. "The day Sophie couldn't grift a mark."

"To be fair, though, I wouldn't tell either," Parker said.

Nate sighed. "People, can we focus?" He turned back towards Eliot and did not melt under the Hitter's furious gaze. "At least let us catch you up on what we've been doing so you're not working blind."

Eliot barely dipped his chin, which Nate took as a truce. Or at least an angry agreement.

"We needed a way in," he said. "And, you're right, posing as underworld figures bidding on you could end really badly for us, so that was never the plan. But we needed Borzoi to think that was the plan, so he'd play his part."

"See?" Hardison put in, indignant. "I'm not the only one who does the behold-my-genius thing!"

Nate opted to ignore him. "We received a warning that there might be interest in the rest of us along with you, so we decided to use it."

"Not all of you," Eliot said. "Just Nate."

"Oh, that's just insulting," Sophie said, pouting with all her might. "Nate is hardly the only one worth the attention of criminal empires."

"This ain't like me," Eliot said, rage close to the surface once more. "Me? What I've done? Yeah, there's more people want me dead than even ten auctions is going to bring in. But this isn't about the team. This is about Nate. Somebody who wants Nate dead. At a price that doesn't even make sense."

Nate made a face. "Now I think I should feel insulted."

Eliot's glare hardened. "Millions of dollars on your head, Nate. Out for your blood. Do you have any idea what that means?"

"That somebody bought Nate's inflated ego?" Hardison asked.

Eliot growled low in his chest – it made a deep rumbling over the comms. "No. It means Nate isn't safe anywhere. It means the next time that door opens, any random guy with a gun could come in here thinking to make himself a fortune."

"Two fortunes," Parker said. "You're in there, too."

"It's different with me, Parker. First of all, most of the people looking for me want me alive, not dead, so they can make me dead as slowly as possible. And second of all, there's too many of them."

"Having multiple parties interested in you makes you safer?" Sophie asked.

"Because they can wheel and deal with each other about it, and they can use me like a chip in their game to gain more power or make alliances. Why do you think this is a live auction?"

"To give the players a chance to meet," Nate said. "Not so different from those corporate types who used a mountain-climbing excursion to cover their business dealings and acquisitions."

"Exactly." Eliot's body was uncoiling from his furious crouch, but he was no less tense. "They all want me dead, yeah, but they're going to get everything out of me on every level before they worry about that part." His eyes went sharp and cold. "You, Nate, somebody just wants dead. Somebody in particular."

"And that means?" Parker asked.

"That means there's no reason to wait. They don't want to trade Nate like some kind of screwed up horse market. They're not bartering him for territory or drug routes. They're not trading him for weapons. Somebody, one person, wants him dead." He shook his head and broke away from Nate's gaze. "It's a miracle he's still alive now."

Nate could hear the anger, the gruffness, the coldness Eliot meant to share. But he could also hear the heart breaking under the words. The terror that only barely rose to the surface between one breath and the next.

Nate had walked in here without the Hitter to protect him.

Nate could have been dead a hundred times over by now.

And Eliot would have failed him.

To be fair, though, Nate felt rather the same way. Eliot had been in the hands of Borzoi for days, and while every indication was that Eliot was worth more alive than dead, there was always a chance he could have been killed by a trigger-happy thug or in one of however-many beat-downs he'd endured. And with the blood on his sleeves, well, Nate knew that the Russians did not take it well when someone killed one of their own.

Nate could have come in here to find a dead body himself. And he would have been to blame for that.

"It's not the same thing, Nate."

Nate looked up, surprised that Eliot was facing him again – but not surprised that Eliot had read those thoughts in his face. Of the whole team, Nate and Eliot had a unique connection, a wordless understanding, the subtlest of languages between them. Sophie could read a mark at fifty yards, and could read Nate in uncomfortably close detail, but they didn't share this wavelength, like a string between two tin cans, stretched taut and vibrating at a frequency that transmitted what no one else could hear.

"It is the same thing," Nate said.

"No. It isn't."

"Why not?"

"Because." And Eliot made a very not-nice smile that stretched his bruises into dark pools of malice. "This is my world."

Nate was suddenly grateful for the stupid chains that kept him on this dirty, cold floor; without them, he might have flown over there to wring the neck of his Hitter, and that would only end in more injuries – mostly to Nate, if he was honest with himself.

"No." He hissed it because he didn't dare scream it. "It hasn't been your world for years and you are not going back there now. Not even for us."

If anything, Eliot's dark smile grew and deepened.

"What makes you think I ever left it?"

"Your psycho-protective pissing match aside," Hardison broke in, "maybe we should finish the briefing before the bad guys with guns show up?"

Nate and Eliot were locked in a staring match, so Hardison took up the summary.

"Basically, Nate went in pretending to be some kind of Irish mobster with a flimsy cover story that fell apart like toilet paper and they made him, which they were supposed to do. But the reason Nate isn't dead right now is that we put something in Borzoi's email that made it look like there were other people willing to bargain over Nate, too, not just the one guy. Figured we might be able to start up another bidding war, but control it ourselves, to keep Nate from getting offed before you showed up."

There were several questions Nate knew Eliot wouldn't ask; he was surprised by the one he did.

"And you all agreed?"

"It hasn't exactly been a picnic out here," Sophie said, affronted. "You weren't the one roused from your bed in the middle of the night and dragged across the country and then to another continent on no sleep and with a go bag without any heels in it!"

"There's something wrong with you," Parker said calmly. "Besides, what else could we do? We couldn't find you, and we had to do something or Sterling was going to chase us away."

Eliot raised an eyebrow. "Sterling's here?"

"Followed us like a zombie out for brains," Hardison said.

Eliot twisted up one side of his mouth. "And he's following you now, isn't he?"

"I'm sure Interpol is going to be very disappointed they weren't invited to this particular party," Nate said.

"Sterling's gonna go all Maleficent on them." Parker's grin was audible. Then, after several beats of silence, "What? She's the best Disney villain ever!"

"That doesn't even make sense," Hardison complained. "This situation is nothing like Sleeping Beauty."

"Chains, dungeon, girl in trouble and three people on the outside ready to help? It's close enough."

"Yeah, but Maleficent loses in that fight!"

Sophie made a slight noise that might have been a sigh. Or a groan. "Anyway. Eliot, you just need to hang in there until they storm the place. Sterling will ride in on his white horse, and you two can escape through whatever routes Parker's got for you."

Parker huffed. "And you complain about me not getting metaphors. Maleficent doesn't ride white horses. She turns into a dragon."

"We'll discuss it later, dear." Sophie sighed.

"What about me?" Molly asked.

Nate and Eliot hadn't forgotten about the teenager who squatted next to Eliot, leaning on his arm, but the other three clearly had.

Eliot nudged her with a shoulder. "You're with me, Rats. To the end."

Molly nodded and, after a moment peering into his face, settled closer against him.

There was something about that Nate didn't like, but he couldn't put his finger on it.

"So, now we wait," Sophie said. "Hardison and I have a...well, I hesitate to call it a truck because it's really more of a boxcar on wheels, but we have it and we're not far down the mountain from you. As soon as Sterling and the authorities move on the compound, Parker will get you out."

Eliot grunted. "In the meantime, Hardison?"

"Yeah?"

"I need you to find out who put that price on Nate's head. Whoever it is, they've been talking to Borzoi privately. This wasn't a deal where just anybody could find it."

"Already working on it. Whoever it is, they're good, but they're not me. I should have it any minute now."

"Just hurry it up."

"Well, somebody's a cranky bear," Hardison shot back. "I take it life in the Pit of Despair isn't all it's cracked up to be?"

Nate could see the warning in Eliot's eyes, the mixture of anger and guilt that was deep enough to drown him. But before he could say anything, Molly spoke up.

"In the Pit of Despair, Wesley got his wounds patched up and they fed him regularly before they put him through The Machine. We were in a basement with almost no food or water, we had to pee in a grate, and nobody had any sense of humor or dark banter." She paused, then tossed her head. "And that movie sucks anyway."

"Hey, do not rag on a fantasy classic!"

"Seriously?" Molly blew out a breath at Hardison's tone. "The entire movie is predicated on the idea that the princess can't make a single decision on her own and can't take any action that matters. She doesn't get to choose who to marry, she gets captured like four times, she makes one break for it and it's pathetic, she lets Wesley drag her around for no good reason other than holding her hand, she lets the prince take her back and try to marry her again, and she tries to get out of it by killing herself! The only good thing she does in the whole movie is toss Wesley down the ravine and that isn't even on purpose!"

Hardison made a slight squeak.

Molly huffed and crossed her arms. "You could literally replace the girl with a mop everybody likes and the story wouldn't change one bit. It sucks."

"She has a point, Hardison," Sophie said. "It is one of the most deplorable examples of damsel-in-distress syndrome I've ever seen outside of a 1950's detective novel."

"It would be better if Inigo and Wesley got together in the end," Parker said suddenly. "They could go have adventures together and the girl could, I dunno, learn to knit or whatever useless girls like that do."

Hardison made a frustrated noise. "Y'all are dumping on a classic. And...okay, I can't say it's the most feminist story ever but...but…"

"Hardison." Eliot's voice was hard, but Nate could see amusement dancing in his eyes. "Focus. Price on Nate's head? Remember?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm getting to it."

"Don't you mean 'as you wish?'" Molly asked.

"We are gonna have words, you and me. Seriously. But later." The sound of typing, which had been almost constant to that point, paused. "Ha! I got it. And this is why I am the master and the rest of you wannabe hackers are pathetic! The name of the guy with a serious Nate problem is Amand Gauthier. You know him?"

Eliot froze so still even Molly looked up at him in surprise. But when he spoke, his tone was painfully normal.

"Yeah, I know him."

"Good," Nate said, trying to dislodge the ice creeping into Eliot's eyes. "Because as soon as we get out of here, we're paying him a visit."

"Nate." Eliot swallowed, and the comm couldn't miss the slightest tremor in his voice. "There's something…"

But he broke off suddenly and pushed to his feet. The chains still held him down in an awkward sort of three-point stance that would not have looked entirely out of place on a football field, but Eliot braced his feet under him and hunched his shoulders.

"Molly. Move."

She blinked, surprised, and practically jumped to wedge herself between Eliot and the wall, shrinking down until she was almost completely hidden behind his body.

Nate wondered how many times the two of them had braced for an attack like this – and it turned his stomach.

"What's happening?" Sophie asked over the comms.

A moment later, the door opened and seven armed men entered with Borzoi ensconced in the center of the crowd.

"The guests have arrived," he said, smiling a shark's smile at Eliot. "It is time for the prize to take the stage."

Chapter Text

"Molly," Nate whispered over the earbud, too low to be picked up in the room, "when they get close to Eliot, you make a run for it. Parker?"

"I'm not far."

"No." Eliot didn't so much as blink as Borzoi and his goons approached. They were rightly cautious, fanning out and closing in slowly. "Too risky. Stay where you are. Molly, trust me?"

"Yes," she breathed back.

"Good. Get to Nate and close your eyes."

"Eliot?" Sophie asked.

"Everybody quiet." Nate couldn't see Eliot's face around the men, but he must have recognized that tone of voice and Eliot was grateful. He needed silence to focus.

Two more steps.

One.

Eliot attacked.

Even as his body was in motion, his brain kept close watch of his surroundings. He saw Molly darting out sideways along the wall and getting clear of the armed men before diving for where Nate was holding his arms out to catch her and shield her. He tracked every reaction of the eight Russians, Borzoi included, noting which reached for guns and which for knives and which just launched themselves at him.

But they expected him still to be chained and tethered.

Idiots.

But if they weren't idiots, they never would have tried to give him a beatdown outside the van where he could pick as many pockets as there were guys throwing punches.

Eliot was fairly sure Molly had seen what he was doing when he sent her over to talk to Nate, had noticed the link between his chains and the ring on the floor open and concealed in his lap when she settled at his side, but she hadn't said anything. He didn't really care if Nate had noticed, but he wouldn't put it past the man. He wasn't the Mastermind for nothing. But neither of them had said anything about it, and it made him smile. Whether it was trust or fear, they let him keep his secrets.

That was good. He was about to keep a few more.

Eliot hadn't been able to open the chains on his wrists and ankles – the lock for that was more complicated than the simple loops of chain attached to the rings in the floor for every other poor soul who wound up in this basement. But, unlike the last time he'd been fighting while chained, this time he had two advantages.

First, he wasn't tethered to the floor and could move around.

Second, he wasn't empty-handed.

A pair of tactical stiletto knives flashed from his hands to the dominant shoulder-joints of the two most trigger-happy goons. Before their dropped guns even hit the ground, Eliot had spun to the wall and kicked off it, driving his back into another pair who had rushed him. He hit them like a battering ram, stunning them long enough to put both fists into each of their faces over his shoulders.

By the time Molly reached Nate, Eliot had lifted a length of chain from one of his battered opponents, probably meant to be his leash for the proceedings. He swung it hard overhand, catching another goon across the head with the spinning metal links and dropping him hard. He released the chain on the next arc and sent it flying into the face of the sixth.

That left only one thug and Borzoi himself standing.

The Russian boss was already turning to call for more help, so Eliot tackled him, catching him in the same hold he'd used on the Venezuelan to get the phone. He pulled his own chains tight against Borzoi's throat.

"Freeze," he warned the only Russian standing. "Or your boss dies."

The last goon had hard, cold eyes, but he raised his hands slowly.

"Keys."

The thug didn't move, but his eyes shifted to one of the Russians with a stiletto sticking out of his shoulder.

"Get it."

While he started digging through the man's pockets, Eliot adjusted his own position, carefully putting himself between the six down and one temporarily-obedient Russians and where Nate had Molly in his arms, head tucked tightly to his chest.

Borzoi made a small sound and Eliot shifted the grip, making certain to bruise a new spot on the man's windpipe.

"You hit Molly," Eliot said, low and dark. "You knew there was gonna be payback for that."

The next huff of air from his prisoner might even have been amused, or maybe Eliot was just imagining it.

When the remaining goon held up a ring of keys, Eliot studied it long enough to be sure it contained what was probably a match to his chains before he gave a sharp nod. "Toss it to them." He gestured to Nate with his head.

Borzoi's face, what Eliot could see of it, was turning an interesting color. The thug hesitated, then obeyed, focused mainly on his boss. Eliot waited for the sound of the keys being lifted from the ground.

"Eliot," Nate said quietly.

Eliot refused to so much as turn his head. He couldn't be merciful now. Not now.

"You will still die," the Russian goon said. "But many of us waited for this moment. We will thank you by killing you quickly."

"Want me to kill your boss for you? Set you up as a new leader?"

The Russian's smile was razor thin. "It would be convenient."

"You probably shouldn't have said that in front of him. If I let him go now, he's gonna kill you and all your buddies out there." Eliot felt a feral smile cross his face. "On the other hand, even if I do kill him, anybody still loyal to him is going to kill you anyway when they figure out you betrayed him and let me get my hands on him."

Eliot thought maybe he heard Sophie draw in a sharp breath over the comms, but he ignored it. He expected the Grifter would not approve of any of the possible plans he could be enacting to get out of this situation. The only one who could really guess where Eliot was going with all this was Nate, and Nate was too busy focusing to bother reacting.

"Either way," Eliot said, "you're pretty much screwed now. And none of this helps me."

The Russian raised an eyebrow, but Eliot could see a hesitation in it. "You have a better idea?"

"Yep. I'll kill your boss, but you get knocked out with the rest of them. Then you can wake up and fix the gang however you want without any suspicion. And I get clear."

"They are not all unconscious," the Russian pointed out.

He was correct, of course. Most of them were, but of the pair Eliot had hit with the pilfered knives he took from the morons who had given him a beat-down on arrival, one was still awake, clinging to his shoulder and clearly trying to decide if it was better to yank the blade out or leave it in.

"Then fix that."

The Russian grinned at Eliot and turned around to kick his compatriot in the head.

"Nice bunch you got here," Eliot said to Borzoi. He adjusted his hold again, still restraining, still bruising, but letting a little more air slide through. Enough to keep him conscious anyway.

Eliot lifted his gaze to the standing Russian.

"But that's usually the problem with a group like this. No matter how good your leader is, there's always somebody willing to break ranks to get the job done."

The Russian had exactly enough time to blink at that before he was dropped by Parker's taser.

She grinned at him. "How'd you know I'd come anyway?"

Eliot shrugged. "Because we've met?"

"What if I stayed where I was like you wanted?"

"I'd have adapted."

"Touching as this reunion is," Nate said, "Eliot, aren't you still mostly strangling our friend over here?"

"Definitely not a friend," Parker said.

Eliot gave her a nod and released Borzoi all at once. The Russian boss took two shaky steps directly into Parker's fist.

"Not bad," Eliot said as Borzoi flopped to the ground. "Wider stance next time. It'll give you more power." He bent down and dropped another swift blow on the man's head, knocking him out completely. He gestured to the tased Russian.

Parker frowned, concentrated, and repeated his strike on the prone man, putting him out as well.

Eliot nodded approvingly. "Better."

"Ahem."

They both turned to where Nate had let go of his grip on Molly and was holding out the key to Eliot's chains.

"I believe a trade is in order?"

Eliot pulled a key from a pocket. "This oughta work on yours." He hobbled over and they went to work on the various locks. The instant Eliot was free, he stretched to his full height and rolled his shoulders.

"Better?" Molly asked him, watching him twist his spine and crack it several times.

"Much. I feel a lot less like a troll now."

"You still look like one, though."

"Good to know."

"So." Parker had helped Nate with his own chains and now looked around the basement dungeon filled with unconscious, injured Russians. "Time to go?"

"Yes," Nate said.

"No."

Eliot took a deep breath and closed his eyes, ignoring the explosions from Sophie and Hardison over the comms which were as incoherent as they were loud. Instead, he let his mind settle into the silent, still place within.

With Interpol closing in, Eliot knew the team should get out now. There was no reason for them to be here for the bust, and it would be risky for them anyway if Sterling was in a bad mood. And he even had the name of the person who had put the bounty on Nate's head. He didn't need Borzoi anymore.

And the team was here. He had to protect them, them and Molly, no matter what.

But Eliot knew something else, too.

The real threat had never been Borzoi or Tretiak or whoever he was. He was nothing more than the Russian who had gotten the drop on Molly's dad and, therefore, on Eliot. He was only the guy greedy enough to set up a live auction with Eliot's head on the block. He was a professional, calm and collected, but he was just another Russian boss, albeit a particularly clever one.

The real threat was that Borzoi had publicly connected the dots between Eliot and the team.

And now anybody who wanted a piece of Eliot Spencer just had to go looking for Nate Ford or his team to get to him.

They would never be safe.

Before Eliot dealt with the direct threat to Nate, he had to deal with the indirect threat to them all.

And he knew the simplest way to do it.

Eliot opened his eyes and felt Nate's piercing gaze on him.

"Eliot, whatever it is, we'll handle it."

"Yeah, and we're gonna handle it right now." Eliot looked between Nate and Parker, steady and determined. "If we wait, it only makes it more likely for this to follow us everywhere we go. We have to do this now."

"Do what now?" Molly asked, stepping close to him.

Eliot looked at her and sighed. She had been paying attention to him not long ago, understood at least part of the message he'd been trying to give her. But she was still there, beside him, and trusting him.

He only hoped he was worthy of that trust.

"Because if you're thinking of faking your death," Molly said, "it never works out. Like, never."

"Seriously," Hardison grumbled.

"Not that." Eliot met Nate's eyes. "You're going to betray me. And then I'm going to betray you all."

-==OOO==-

"You rat bastard!" Eliot yelled. "I'm going to kill you!"

"Sorry." Nate shrugged, gesturing to the crowd of Russians who still looked at him warily. "It's just business, Spencer."

"Want me to tase him?" Parker asked.

"Simmer down there," Hardison said quietly over the comms. Eliot didn't roll his eyes, focused on keeping his face red and twisted in fury.

Nate was playing his role perfectly. It was downright creepy how quickly Nate had gotten Borzoi's gang onto his side and sold them on the whole "let's sell him anyway and split the profits as long as you let me go and I'll compensate you handsomely" deal. Of course, Hardison dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into their bank accounts had probably helped.

Eliot couldn't let himself smile. But still. That had been a stroke of genius.

Jim Sterling was going to be furious.

On the plus side, he'd have an air-tight case against the whole bunch of them.

The Russians dragged Eliot to the grand ballroom or whatever room was big enough to house an auction full of the scum of the earth. He fought all the way, without ever losing the key to the cuffs that were now only on his wrists. Nate had said something about letting Eliot keep his dignity and not walk in hunched over like a gargoyle, but at that point the Russians had barely bothered to listen.

They were too busy plotting to get the money for Eliot and then kill Nate and take his share.

Eliot had almost gone weak with relief when he realized that Borzoi had not told anyone else about the price on Nate's head. But then, if he had told them, he might have had to share it with them. Borzoi's pet Russians didn't need reasons to abduct or kill the people Borzoi had sent them after, so he had wisely kept that piece of information to himself.

It was why Eliot didn't object to leaving the Russians alive.

Otherwise, this part of the plan would be going very differently.

Eliot allowed himself to be hauled up onto a low stage in a room filled with faces he would just as soon forget. One of the Russians was already speaking to the crowd about the great Eliot Spencer, but almost no one was listening to that part. They all knew what he could do, what he was capable of, what he had done.

This was just window-dressing before the bidding.

Through it all, Eliot kept his senses trained on the room, on every movement of every person and every shadow that approached a door.

"Are you sure we can't just get the hell out of here now?" Hardison asked quietly over comms.

"I'm sure," Nate said. "First off, it's too late to extract Eliot. But more importantly, every person at this auction can lead Interpol and the authorities into a rat's nest of people ten times worse. Trust me, we want to keep them all here and focused on each other for as long as possible. This bust is going to cripple terrorist groups and mobs and rogue nations all over the world."

Eliot was glad Nate was focused on the big picture. It meant he was still not looking altogether too closely at a few of the details.

The Russian pointed at Eliot. "We start at two million dollars!"

Eliot barked a laugh. "For that, somebody could just hire me. Better for everyone, don't you think?"

A voice called out from the back, "You work for someone else!" The voice sounded suspiciously like Hardison, and his audio tricks meant it didn't at all seem as if it came from a speaker.

But Eliot screwed up his face in his most lethal glare and spit on the ground in front of him. "Not anymore."

The entire front row took two steps back, a few in visible panic.

The Russian auctioneer laughed. "His previous master has sold him to us. Now we sell him to you. Three million dollars!"

And the bidding began in earnest.

Eliot ignored most of it. Honestly, he didn't care a whole lot about who won and what they planned to do with him. He had no illusions that it would be good, but he also did not intend to let them get him in the first place.

Over the comms, Hardison was muttering to himself about all the back-end work he had to get done in the next few minutes, and it sounded complicated and annoying. Sophie was coaching him on wording, to make sure all the last evidence trails he was generating sounded legitimate. Nate and Parker were silent, waiting to see if their plan would turn out or if Nate would have to swap to plan H or whatever letter he was on by now.

As long as they were far away from this room, Eliot really didn't care where they were or what they were doing. Molly would be safe with them as long as Nate and Parker didn't decide to be stupid.

Hardison's carefully hidden speaker kept the bidding furious when others would die down, and sometimes induced tempers to rise as he taunted or mocked people in the room. Guns had appeared in hands twice in four minutes, and two factions of terrorists were already swearing to destroy the other as soon as the auction ended.

It was a powder keg waiting to blow.

When Borzoi charged into the room, a group of armed and bloodied men at his back, he did so into chaos. "Traitor!" Borzoi yelled in Russian, opening fire on the auctioneer and killing him with a few shots.

Eliot dropped flat to the ground, letting the crowd react to the sudden violence.

Two of Borzoi's still-loyal goons had poor aim and hit people standing near their former gang-brothers, which launched retaliation from the crowd. In moments, every hand held a weapon and people were taking cover and shouting orders in a haze of violence.

Eliot calmly unlocked his shackles with the key he had palmed and crawled to one side.

"Doors?" he asked quietly.

"We got people running everywhere, but through the back kitchen is clearest," Hardison reported. The building didn't have electronic locks, but it did have cameras, allowing the Hacker to view the scene and the corridors around it.

Nate spoke up. "We're out in the back, third jeep from the end of the row. As soon as you're clear, we'll head out."

"Sterling's on the move," Sophie reported. "He's leading a team that should have the whole place surrounded in minutes."

Eliot nodded to himself and glanced back over the room.

It hadn't been a plan so much as an eventuality, really. If anyone put a whole bunch of vicious, murdering criminals in the same room, there were really only two outcomes possible – alliance or war. The alliances had been formed before Borzoi appeared in the basement to collect Eliot for auction, but they were weak, and mostly contingent upon the auction going well. Eliot knew all he really had to do was bring the auction to a sudden halt and let all the rage and malice do the rest.

And since Borzoi already had a whole faction within his own gang to deal with, it was simple enough to let it happen naturally. Nate and Eliot hadn't had to do a single thing about it – just leave the basement door unlocked, make it known that half of the Russians had decided to switch sides, and wait. Borzoi's loyal followers woke him up soon enough and staged a counter-coup.

It wasn't a con even worthy of them – Maggie could have pulled it off. But the real con was something no one would see coming.

Not until Interpol started listing the charges.

In the meantime, Eliot had something else to do.

"Eliot, I don't see your butt moving yet!" Hardison said over the comms. "Get going!"

Eliot punched his way through a few over-eager representatives of a particular totalitarian government and headed out the almost-hidden door meant for servants to pass unobtrusively between the kitchen and the room.

"Hardison, I need to know if you can hack any of the cars near where Nate and Parker and Molly are."

"Uh, yeah? I mean, they've all got nice onboard computers tied into their functions. I could probably set up a Nascar race around the building with the whole fleet if I wanted. Why?"

"Good."

He dodged through a few more hallways, alternately taking out people who got in his way or evading them when that was faster. Everything was moving now – the crowd of scum, the Russians, Sterling, Interpol, and the team – and Eliot had to keep them all moving just a little longer.

"Eliot." Nate's voice was low. He was thinking. Thinking might be a problem. "What are you planning to do?"

"Seems like maybe you should have asked him that before you tossed him into a room full of sharks," Sophie said.

Eliot could almost hear Nate shrug. "That was just a big distraction, nothing more."

Eliot shook his head, smirking. Nate had no idea how true that really was.

"So what is the plan?" Parker asked.

"Get out and wait for Sterling to give everybody a headache," Hardison suggested.

"Molly." Eliot ducked into a blind spot and closed his eyes, visualizing everything he had seen on Parker's phone, a tiny map of the complex courtesy of Hardison. "You with me?"

"Yes?"

"Good. It's time for something we talked about, Rats."

"W-What do you want me to do?"

"Not you, Molly. Me."

"Oh." He could hear the comprehension in her voice. "Right. Well, get over here, then. It's your turn to be Rats."

Eliot grinned. "See you later, kiddo."

"Eliot?" Nate asked more urgently. "What – ?"

"I told you," Eliot said. "First you betray me, and then I betray you. Take care of them, Nate."

And Eliot pulled the earbud from his ear, and the two more Parker had planted on him, and smashed them to the ground.

He could feel, even if he couldn't hear, the outrage that would be echoing across the comms. But he had something to do, something he couldn't do with them, or even near them.

Molly would understand. Nate would be pissed. The others...he couldn't even think about it.

So instead, Eliot calmly lifted the gun he'd swiped from one of the nameless, faceless thugs running around and took out the camera pointed at his position. One hallway over, he took out the next one. In a matter of minutes, he had blinded Hardison to a whole section of the complex.

And only then, when he'd circled several times, making no apparent pattern, did he stroll out the side door where he'd been dragged only an hour or two before and climb into the ancient van which had transported Molly and himself here in the first place.

The fleet of jeeps and cars parked across the complex, rented or stolen or owned by the crowds inside still making war, were all shiny and high tech and therefore perfect for Hardison. This rattly, rusty piece of crap was prehistoric by comparison.

Eliot started it up and made his way down the mountain, carefully avoiding the roads that would lead to where Hardison and Sophie were probably still trying to figure out what he was doing in the huge blind spot he had created.

By the time Nate put it together, he'd be far ahead of them.

The only thing Eliot regretted was that he hadn't been able to say goodbye.

Chapter Text

"Damn it!" Nate slammed a hand down on the dashboard. "Hardison, are you sure he didn't go back into the auction room?"

"Pretty sure, Nate. I mean, it's hard to tell given that he shot a giant hole in my camera coverage, but he's got to be in there somewhere."

"Not necessarily," Parker said. "He could have left."

Nate turned to her, his jaw tense and his eyes narrow. "He wouldn't."

"Um."

They both turned to where Molly was crouching in the back of the jeep they had broken into. It had made a good hiding place away from the chaos in the estate, and it could double as a getaway car if necessary.

"What is it?" Nate asked her more sharply than he really intended.

But Molly was used to Eliot now, and Nate didn't intimidate her. "I...I don't think he's coming this way."

"Why not?"

"Because he called me 'Rats.'"

"Rats?" Sophie repeated. "He said it several times, though."

"What does it mean?" Nate asked.

Molly wasn't completely certain she should be sharing the secret with them, but she also thought maybe Eliot knew she'd end up telling them. He'd already sort of told her what he was going to do, after all.

"I'm only going to tell you if you make me a promise," Molly said.

"What kind of promise?" Sophie asked.

"If I tell you...you have to promise that you'll...you'll trust him."

"Trust him how?" Parker asked.

Nate's stare was still not intimidating, but it was intense. It made all the words dry up in her throat. Molly forced them out anyway.

"Eliot...he made me promise to do what he said, because he knew what he was doing. He said he wanted to protect me. And...and he did. But...it was hard. If you...if you try to do something wrong now, it'll be even harder. Because...because he's still protecting us. All of us."

"What exactly do you want us to promise to do?" Nate asked.

"Promise me you'll let Eliot do what he has to do to protect us. Or...he'll get hurt. And I don't want him to. Not anymore. Okay?"

Nate drew in a slow breath, but Parker looked Molly right in the eyes. "We promise." She poked Nate. "Right?"

"Yes, all right. So – Rats?"

"It was a code. If he called me 'Rats,' it meant he wanted me to do the exact opposite of what he said. Like once when he told me to stand back, I jumped in front of him, and he used it to take somebody down and grab their phone."

Nate closed his eyes.

"Wait, y'all had a phone?" Hardison asked, incredulous. "And you didn't, I dunno, call the police or some kind of goon squad or nothing?"

"Eliot had a plan," Molly said.

Nate was nodding. "Yes. He did."

"Nate?" Sophie asked.

The pieces were slotting into place inside Nate's head now.

You're with me, Rats. To the end.

Well, get over here, then. It's your turn to be Rats.

See you later, kiddo.

And, of course:

You're going to betray me. And then I'm going to betray you all.

Eliot had given Nate more than a dozen clues. He'd given him his entire plan.

"Eliot's already gone," Nate said into the silence over the comms. "That's why he took out his earbud and destroyed the cameras. He's probably already off site."

"He wouldn't leave you three there unprotected," Sophie said.

"That's why he asked Hardison if he had control over the cars. If anybody comes our way, Hardison can run them off the road." Nate rubbed at his forehead. "Because the job isn't about Borzoi or the auction, is it, Molly? Not anymore."

He opened his eyes to see her shaking her head.

"Then what's it about?" Sophie asked.

Nate looked steadily at Molly and waited until she answered.

"He's going to get rid of the price on your head," she said.

"How?" Parker wanted to know.

"He'll do what he has to," Nate said.

They could hear Hardison gulp over the comms.

"We have to get to him," Sophie said. "Nate, we can't let him do this!"

Nate reached for the keys to the jeep, only to find them missing. He looked across to Parker sitting beside him.

Parker was looking out the passenger-side window.

"Parker?" He aimed for gentle. "If we go now, we might still catch him."

"No." Parker didn't turn around. "No, you have to let him do what he thinks is right."

"What?" Hardison yelled.

"It's like the mountain. The second one we stole, when we found that frozen dead guy and his notes and his phone."

Nate waited. Sometimes it took the patience of a saint to let Parker put her meaning into words in her own time. Especially times like now, when every second was precious. Every second, Eliot was getting farther away. Every second, Eliot was making plans, intent on one thing.

The thing Nate had never, ever wanted to ask of him.

"What happened on the mountain, Parker?" Sophie asked, her own voice warm, safe.

"We...we found him. Alan. But we couldn't bring him up. There wasn't enough rope. And I wanted...I wanted to bring him. I wanted to...to do the right thing. Like...like you would have done."

She turned to face Nate and he was surprised at the tears in her eyes. Barely there, but there nonetheless.

"And Eliot told me...he told me it was a good thing it was us down there. That we…"

She stopped, and Nate didn't know how to make her start again.

But Hardison's voice came, soft and low and just for her. "What did he tell you, Parker?"

She took a deep breath. "He told me that the two of us do things the rest of you can't. Can't or won't. And he said...he said it could be a gift or...a curse. That it was up to us to decide."

Nate's chest ached. If Parker were anyone else, he would reach out, put a hand on her shoulder, maybe even hug her. But right now she was wound tight, her shoulders up, her body defensive and prickly. Hardison could have hugged right through all those signals, either oblivious to them or willing to risk being wrong. Eliot wouldn't have hugged her, but Nate thought maybe he could have just like Hardison could – the three of them had an ease together that was theirs alone.

Just as he had an understanding with Eliot. Just as Hardison hid behind Eliot. Just as Sophie confided in Eliot about Nate, a fact he was certain they didn't think he knew – they should really know better than to talk about him in his own apartment by now.

But, as much as he hated it, he couldn't argue with it. "He's right, Parker," Nate said quietly.

Her face quirked, a slight flinch of incomprehension.

"Eliot's right," he repeated. "You and he...you do take care of the things we can't. And sometimes we ask you two to do the things we won't. And it's...it is a curse. And maybe a gift, too. But today it's a curse. Because that's what Eliot's doing, isn't it?"

Parker nodded. "They want you dead. You. And we can't...you heard him. We can't play with this guy. He just wants to kill you." She swallowed. "Eliot can't let that happen."

"Parker." There was sympathy in Sophie's voice.

But it galvanized Parker and her expression went hard. "And I'm not going to let you stop him."

Nate put out a hand for the keys. "Parker, if we don't stop him, I mean, just think about what he's going to do. What it's going to do to him."

She shook her head, her eyes going dark and furious as they did only when people threatened her money. And, if Nate was honest with himself, when people threatened their team.

"Eliot can handle doing what he has to do. He trusts me and I trust him. And you promised Molly that we would trust him, too. And I'm not going to let you die, either."

There as a sound of sudden clicking and typing from the comms, and then Hardison swore.

"What is it?" Nate asked, looking up.

"Well, looks like it won't matter much anyway."

"Why?"

"'Cause you're not going anywhere."

And a crowd of paramilitary soldiers swarmed them.

-==OOO==-

"Well, this looks like a lovely party."

"Sterling." Nate sighed.

"It's amazing how quickly you can get an international peacekeeping force together when you mention the word terrorism," Sterling said. He sauntered in wearing a suit without the bulletproof vest of the guards standing outside the door.

"I'm surprised the Venezuelan government played along," Nate said. "They're not exactly known for international cooperation and the sanctity of law."

"Oh, we gave them good reason," Sterling said. He smirked at where Hardison was still pouting – he would call it 'fuming,' of course, but it wasn't – in the corner. The cheap van had been surrounded at the same time as the rest of the complex, and now four members of the Leverage and Associates team, plus Molly, sat in a single, smelly police transport vehicle.

"You're welcome," Hardison grumbled.

Sterling's smirk turned into a wide grin.

"What do you want?" Nate asked.

"Well, at the least, it seemed a courtesy to come and thank you all." He put his hands into his pockets and rocked on the balls of his feet. "Thanks to your little game, I'm now going to go down in history as the agent who single-handedly oversaw perhaps the biggest bust of criminals in history. We've got all kinds today, from terrorists to mafia." He winked at Sophie. "And an art thief."

"Ex-art thief," she corrected.

"So?" Parker was glaring at him with the kind of expression that usually ended in people getting tased. "Why are you here now?"

Sterling tipped his head to Nate. "How about a little chat? Just you and me. For old times' sake."

Nate looked at his group and gave a single nod. "I'll be right back."

Sophie edged closer to Molly as Nate rose. "Be careful."

"Oh, how's that for trust?" Sterling asked in mock outrage. "After all we've been through together?"

"You're lucky Eliot's not here," Parker said.

Sterling tipped his head. "Maybe I am at that. Nate? After you."

Outside the van, Sterling waved to several more guards and set off along the fence at the edge of what had been Borzoi's property. When they were properly out of earshot, he stopped and pointed at Nate's ear.

Nate nodded and pulled out his earbud, tucking it into a pocket and stuffing it way down where it wouldn't pick up much in the way of audio.

"So. Your puppy's still missing?"

Nate scowled. "Stop it. What do you really want?"

"Olivia says hi."

Nate growled.

Sterling considered him. "I think you're more impatient than you used to be. Apparently being a criminal has caused you to lose focus."

"Sorry for being distracted," Nate shot back. "It's been a very busy day."

"Oh, I know. Kidnapped by the Russian mob, then assuming control over that self-same mob, auctioning off your puppy to a room full of people who make him look positively angelic, coordinating evidence that changed the prize of this little auction into a stolen copy of Interpol's criminal database, hacking my division's private funds to pay your little mob, and then being placed under arrest. Oh, and after all of that, losing your precious puppy all over again." He smiled. "Did I miss anything?"

"If you need more time to get to the point, I could go wait in the van," Nate offered.

Sterling chuckled. "I knew you were going to lead me to something big, Nate. I had no idea it would be the case of my career. I might even owe you another favor for this."

"I don't care," Nate said. "What do you really want?'

"It's not really about what I want. It's about what you want. You and your team."

"Well." Nate folded his arms against his chest. "A pass out of here would be nice."

"That's easy enough. Thanks to Hardison, there's no evidence of you or your team being connected to any of this. Even Spencer. We've got no reason to hold you."

"Good. Then we'll be on our way." But Nate didn't move and inch and didn't look away from Sterling's eyes.

"Before you go, a word to the wise."

"I'm listening. Barely."

"Don't chase after Spencer."

Nate's eyebrows rose and he couldn't stop them. "Is that a professional opinion?"

Sterling shook his head and Nate was surprised. The smugness that usually radiated off the man was dimming.

"It'll be better for you and him if you leave well enough alone this time. Go home, take your people back to the States, and let him go."

"Sterling, you – "

"I know about the bounty, Nate. Tretiak let something slip to his mistress who we took into custody on our way up. Why else do you think Spencer didn't escape when he had the chance? He's trying to save your life." Sterling frowned. "You're a bigger bastard than I am if you won't let him do that much for you."

Nate considered Sterling more carefully. "Why are you doing this?"

Sterling shrugged far too casually. "Piece of friendly advice. For old times' sake, like I said."

"No." Nate shook his head. "You're doing this for Eliot. He contacted you, sent you down here to stop me. Why?"

"What makes you think that?" Sterling asked, and if the question was meant to sound innocent, it failed utterly and deliberately.

"Molly told us Eliot had a phone, but he didn't call us. You showed up within hours of us. You just told me Eliot had a chance to escape but didn't." Nate swallowed a mix of fury and more fury. "He contacted you. Sent you to slow me down. I missed it in our first conversation, but now it's obvious. So, tell me – why?"

"You know why," Sterling said, disappointed. "To save your life."

"Why are you helping him?"

Sterling's eyes crinkled though he didn't smile. "I owed him one."

Nate stopped. Considered.

"Dubai?"

Sterling inclined his head ever so slightly.

And Nate remembered. Remembered Sterling drugging Eliot to get him out of the way while he rescued Olivia from her step-father. Remembered Eliot being enraged, albeit groggy, for being put out of commission.

"I wouldn't have thought you cared about that," Nate said carefully.

Sterling raised one shoulder in an almost-shrug. "If things had gone differently, you or your team could have gotten hurt. I'm the one who took out your protector." Then his eyes met Nate's unflinchingly. "I may not respect what you do, Nate, but don't think for a moment I don't understand the responsibility to take care of what's yours. If our places had been swapped, if Spencer had drugged me and put Olivia in a position to get hurt, he'd owe me one, too."

"What did he ask you to do?"

"Nothing." Sterling wasn't lying – Nate was sure. "Told me he was in a position where he couldn't watch your back and it was my turn to do it. In his own, cryptic way, of course."

Nate didn't care about that part. "And that's what you're doing now? Watching my back?"

"Yes." Sterling rolled his eyes. "If you'd stop being so stubborn about it."

"This isn't me being stubborn," Nate said. "This is me taking care of what's mine."

That won him a tiny smile. "Good. Then take your merry band of ragtag thieves and go home."

"And what about Eliot?"

"What about him?" Sterling replied. "He's finishing the job. Distasteful, yes, and totally illegal, of course, but you have to admire the dedication to his work."

"He's going to kill Amand Gauthier."

"After today, that's barely a chaser."

Nate blinked at him. Sterling shook his head.

"It wasn't your plan to start World War III in there, Nate. I know it wasn't. That was Spencer."

Nate couldn't argue the point honestly, so he didn't.

"Do you want to know how many bodies we're pulling out? No? Well, more than enough. It would be tragic if they weren't all some of the most criminal, deplorable, dangerous people on the planet. But he killed them, Nate, even if not with his bare hands. Killing one more isn't even a drop in the bucket."

"It is to Eliot."

Sterling scowled. "No. Not him. You mean you."

Nate blinked. "What?"

"Spencer's probably killed more people than either of us will ever know, Nate," Sterling said, and he said it as casually as if he were discussing the landscaping. "He's immune to it by now. It's you who's bothered."

Nate curled his hands into fists. "I don't think, for one second, that Eliot will ever be immune to killing people. He does what he has to, but he feels it. Every time."

Sterling shrugged. "Either way. You're the one taking it hard. I wonder what your team will think when they can't pretend they aren't working with a murderer anymore."

Nate thought of Sophie and dropped his eyes.

"Exactly." Sterling actually patted Nate on the shoulder. "So go home and let him go. Better for everybody." He started to walk back to the controlled chaos that was the cleanup of the operation. "Come on. I'll get your people out of here."

Nate followed more slowly, his heart hammering.

"Oh, and Nate?"

Nate looked up.

"If you ever do see Eliot Spencer again, be sure to tell him that we're square. I am not doing this babysitting thing for him anymore. You're too much of a pain in the ass."

-==OOO==-

Nate was quiet all the way back to the hotel – the eleventh hotel they'd rented in Venezuela in an attempt to throw off Borzoi and evade Sterling. Parker drove, which was possibly a mistake, and Molly spent the ride clinging to Hardison, who was clinging right back.

But when they entered the room, finding it tossed probably by Sterling because of course it was but otherwise not overly disturbed, he turned to Hardison.

"I need you to find Amand Gauthier."

Hardison nodded and flipped open the laptop he had managed to keep from the international force of military and police – probably because Parker hid it somewhere and Nate did not even want to think about that.

"I kinda started before, when I got his name. He moves around a lot, but I think he's probably somewhere in Europe."

"Then that's where Eliot is going."

"Nate," Sophie began.

"I know, I know." Nate ran his hands through his hair. "He's probably going to kill him and none of us signed on for that and – "

"Nathan Ford, sit down."

That commanding tone actually stopped Nate in his tracks before he could even begin to pace properly. He blinked at Sophie, who was glaring at him with a glare eerily similar to one of Eliot's. Then she turned it on everyone else.

"You too. Right now."

Nate sank onto the edge of a double bed, Hardison beside him. Parker flopped at the end of it, her head dangling upside down. Molly looked up at Sophie, grinned, and clambered onto the head of the bed, curling up amidst the pillows.

"Now." Sophie's voice was dangerously calm. "I am aware of the fact that you would very much like to panic at this juncture." She pinned Nate with her gaze. "Our Eliot is out there making some...narrow-minded decisions. But I think you've missed the point here."

Nate opened his mouth to reply, but shut it again when another of those dangerous looks was aimed his way.

"We all agreed on the plane to Boston that we were willing to chase after Eliot no matter what. Nothing about that has changed. We also," she peered at Nate, "have had to deal with your doubts and hesitation and misguided attempts to protect us from Eliot."

Parker snorted from upside-down.

"But Nate." Sophie's voice softened ever so slightly. "We have never needed to be protected from Eliot. Sometimes, however, we need to protect him from himself."

Hardison raised a hand. "Then why…?"

She glared again and he froze.

"Can we all agree that murder is wrong? Of course we can. But that's hardly relevant."

Nate blinked.

"The thing in danger right now is not Amand Gauthier. Well, he is, but he's also trying to kill you, Nate, and I take that poorly." She shook her head. "No, the thing in danger is not Amand Gauthier and it isn't even Eliot." Sophie looked at Parker. "What is it that's in danger, dear?"

Parker nodded, blonde hair flopping on the floor. "Family," she said.

"Exactly." Sophie folded her arms. "By all means, let's chase after Eliot and see if we can keep him from doing something he'll have to live with if he's going to regret it. I don't actually know if he will, and I'd rather ask him than make assumptions. But."

And she held them all with her fierce expression again.

"Whether or not he kills Amand Gauthier, he is still going to do something he's going to regret."

"He's going to leave."

Nate turned to Molly, who was holding a pillow to her chest. She regarded him with sad eyes.

"He's not coming back. He said so. Or he didn't say so. But...I know."

"I do, too," Sophie said, and now her voice was low and her face had lost its scary steel. "Eliot believes he is a danger to us now. Half the criminal underworld knows he is connected with us, and as much smoke as we blew at that before the fight broke out, it still might not help."

"So what do we do?" Hardison asked.

"We go after him." Nate said it and felt surer about it every second. "We go after him and we bring him back."

"Even if he kills Gauthier?" Sophie asked, raising an eyebrow archly.

"Even if he kills everybody between here and Gauthier," Nate said. "Because it's not about that. He's not about that. And I'm not going to let him forget that."

Sophie smiled at him. "That's the right answer. Isn't it?"

Nate saw Parker nodding vigorously, which looked oddly graceful the way she did it – probably because she spent half her life upside-down. He turned to Hardison, who gave a small shrug.

"I've already got us tickets to Paris. I'll narrow it down on the way."

"What about me?" Molly asked. "Can I come with you?"

"For now, you probably should," Nate said. "We still have to sort out stuff with your dad, too."

"Already done that, man," Hardison said. Everyone looked at him in surprise. "What? You think I been sleeping the last few days? Hell no!"

"So what did you do?" Parker asked.

Hardison grinned. "Contacted our old boy Agent McSweeten. He's working the case as we speak and should have Molly's dad in real witness protection in a couple of days, especially when he finds out about Sterling's bust." He nudged Parker's foot with an elbow. "I told him Molly's in our custody. He emailed me something for you."

"What is it?" Parker didn't even bother sitting up.

"Uh...some kind of music video with a lot of pictures of flowers and Bryan Adams singing in the background."

"Ew." Sophie shuddered. "Delete that."

"Already done. Wish I'd never seen it."

"Glad I never saw it," Parker added.

Nate shook his head. "So. Once more into the breach, dear friends?"

"We're going to the airport, not the breach," Molly said. Nate glared at her and she grinned. "You walked right into that one."

"I suppose."

And even as they gathered what of their belongings was worth dragging onto another plane, he thought about Eliot. Probably already halfway across the Atlantic. With death in his heart, and thinking there was a broken team in his wake.

Nate had said before that he thought Eliot would walk into hell on broken legs for the team. Now, he knew for sure that Eliot would go farther than that. All the way down.

And Nate would follow him there. Would chase him down as he had years ago when they'd been on opposite sides of the game. Would run him to the ground and catch him and turn him around.

Nobody was walking back out of hell unless they all walked out together.

Chapter Text

Eliot was surprised at the ease with which he eluded the Interpol-united forces which converged upon Borzoi's location. Either at least half the local and international police and military enforcement agents were utter morons, or Sterling had actually created an opening in the net for Eliot to use.

He wasn't sure which was more plausible, actually, but he took advantage regardless.

Eliot figured he had maybe two hours, three if Sterling was being a real bastard, before the team would be after him once more. And, just like when he had needed to try to rework everyone else's timelines to make them fit his agenda, he needed to make sure they were not in position to interfere.

But Eliot had an advantage even Hardison would have a tough time ferreting out from his little computers.

He knew Amand Gauthier.

The man had been a business associate of Damien Moreau, and back in the day, Eliot had seen a lot of the Frenchman who was part socialite, part investor, and part black market dealer. Amand was a crafty old man, had been in the business long before Eliot started selling his services to well-paying clients, and had survived so long by knowing when to fight and when to hide.

And Eliot remembered where Damien had told him Amand usually went to hide.

Eliot had swiped five different phones from people at Borzoi's place, and it took little effort to use one of them to make a dozen different flight reservations going all over the globe, and a dozen more bound for different places in Europe. He had no doubts that Hardison would figure out which phones he had and would begin tracking him as soon as Interpol gave him three minutes alone with a keyboard. So he further obscured his tracks by reserving three private flights as well.

Unfortunately, there weren't any direct flights from Caracas to Prague, so Eliot had to prepare himself for a long haul.

After ditching the van, the cash in one stolen wallet bought him the shirt off a man on the street, and a different stolen wallet provided a credit card that got him a few basics and some bandages at a drugstore. In a public restroom not far from the airport, Eliot washed his face, neck, hands, arms, and hair as thoroughly as he could. He bandaged his hands more carefully, and put a single butterfly closure on the gash on his head. Then he carefully combed his hair forward, making it look like he was trying to hide some of his injuries.

People wouldn't look too closely at someone who was hurt and embarrassed by it, especially in this part of the world where express kidnappings were a daily occurrence. Eliot knew he wouldn't be the only person in a hurry to leave the country looking like he'd barely survived.

In the bustle of the people and crowds, the noises, smells, and chaos, Eliot wasn't even in the top twenty unusual things running around.

At the airport, before he printed every single one of the tickets he'd ordered, he stole some luggage from the unclaimed baggage pile. It took him longer to decide which passport he could use than it had to make the flights, because he needed someone whose appearance was close enough to his own to pass inspection. However, Eliot knew that most security looked only at the shape of the face, the color of the skin, and the confidence of the person with the ID, rather than matching up exact facial features. Plus, having quite a lot of bruising would do a great deal to obscure his features.

And he had a lot of bruising.

The one he had eventually chosen to use when buying all the flights didn't ultimately look very much like him at all – and there was something very strange about that man's nose – but the security personnel avoided looking at him too closely once they saw his bandages and cuts and purpled welts. They looked at him so little, Eliot thought he could have used Sophie's passport and they'd have let him through.

Once he got through airport screening and security, he relaxed a bit. Now it would be far easier to avoid detection.

After the unexpected job spent chasing down a donor heart in an airport, Eliot had even more insight than he'd had before into the inner workings of airports. Especially here, where there were armed guards but no one looked twice at the guy with the broken face, it was almost laughably easy for Eliot to sneak into the 'employees only' area and steal a workman's jumpsuit and hat. He knew the airport had lots of cameras on the inside, but far fewer would spot him out on the tarmac.

And every camera he avoided was one less Hardison could use to track him.

Eliot didn't really speak enough Spanish to get along, but he could glare and grunt and that got him through the few hours before his evening flight took off. Then, it was a simple matter of getting into the jetway for the flight he actually wanted and ditching the jumpsuit again. He timed it such that he was heading up the jetway when the first passengers were heading down it to board the flight, so he could get his boarding pass scanned by a harried airline employee not quite sure how the young man with the injuries had gotten past her the first time.

Finally aboard the plane, and with the team nowhere in sight, Eliot allowed himself to relax.

It was a long flight to Madrid, and then onto Prague, after all.

Eliot settled into his seat and closed his eyes. For the first time since he'd left Portland, he could allow himself to rest. The flight would be almost nine hours in duration, which was enough time for both some actual sleep and some meditation. Eliot knew plenty of people who eschewed meditation as hippie-new-agey garbage, but it had always held great value for him. Sleep was healing and restorative to the body, and it provided a mental reset that the brain needed to work properly. But meditation gave healing and restoration to the soul.

Eliot's soul was in a permanent state of broken, of course, but meditating made it much easier for him to pretend otherwise.

Even before the plane left the runway, Eliot had slipped into the place inside himself where all was quiet, where there was no thought, no rage, no pain. Just silence and rest and truth. The events of the last hours filtered through that dark peace, not as images or memories, but as experiences, feelings, impressions. They presented themselves one at a time, swirled lazily about, unfurling their nuances and letting their sharp edges grow dull. He relived them until they were a part of his bones, but a part he could live with.

This was how he had survived before Nate and the team. Not by forgetting, but by embracing. Eliot could only be all that he was, and he forced himself to live with it, instead of in spite of it. Forced himself to know it and understand it and embody it, rather than attempt to stuff it down, only for it to explode later.

It was, perhaps, the second greatest gift Nate had given Eliot – the first being, of course, the team itself. The family. Whatever they were. All that they were.

But besides that, Nate had given Eliot the chance to be what he was, without having to make himself live with it.

Nate had given Eliot the chance to be all that he was, with a leash to hold him back. Eliot had been the dog of one person or another for most of his adult life – be it the military or people like Moreau and Gauthier. He had sold his deadly skills like a ronin samurai, his sword turned to whatever cause would employ him. And as a mercenary, he had done as ordered, killing when told, sparing lives when so ordered, employing as much force as he had been contracted for. Until Nate, for the most part, those who purchased Eliot Spencer asked for his lethality.

But Nate had asked Eliot to fight, but not kill. Had paid him to protect, not attack. Had called upon the wolf's strength and power, but had muzzled its teeth. From the moment Nate had taken control of Dubenich's team in that first job, Nate had made it clear to Eliot that he didn't want a killer, didn't want to leave blood and bodies in their wake. He only wanted the rest of the team safe, protected, free to do their part. Revenge, justice, payback, whatever they called what they did to their marks, it was never dealt in blood.

Eliot had put his leash into Nate's hands, and Nate used it for good. Not to turn him on the innocent, but to spare them. Not to punish the guilty, but to keep them occupied while the true punishment fell.

If Eliot was honest with himself, it was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Suddenly all his training, all his deadly skills, all his vile experience had a purpose that was clean and good again.

And he was going to ruin it.

But they would live.

Eliot fell asleep on the plane with the only unresolved feeling his heart his regret that he would lose what he most cherished, both within himself and in the world overall – just to save the only thing worth living for.

-==OOO==-

In Madrid, Eliot changed identities again, avoiding cameras with a skill that sounded like Hardison in his head and stealing as he went with hands that felt like Parker's touch. And when he glanced at his fingers, his bruises, his broken pinky, he felt Sophie's concern lance into his heart.

But he hardened himself against all of it.

The only bit he kept was Nate's logic and insight, and that because it was the only way to beat them.

He flew to Prague on the next flight and spent it thinking.

Upon arrival in the city, Eliot went straight to a back-alley dealer he remembered to be trustworthy. Every Euro he had picked up in Madrid went to the purchase of a gun with a silencer attached.

Then he went after Gauthier.

Amand Gauthier kept a safe-house in Prague, one Damien had shown to Eliot long ago in case Damien ever had reason to move against him. By Eliot's standards, it had never been particularly "safe," but he'd never pointed that out to anyone; he hadn't been paid to fix lousy security, after all. The safe-house was nothing more than a townhouse in a quiet neighborhood with a good alarm system and a name on all official paperwork that was difficult to trace back to Gauthier.

But cameras and alarms were nothing to Eliot Spencer, and even less to an Eliot Spencer who had spent four years with a master Hacker and Thief.

Eliot waited outside the house for several hours until he was certain Amand was there. He counted six guards, all armed, but clearly new to the business from the distinctive way they stood at windows. By then, it was well past midnight, edging on towards false dawn in Prague.

Eliot took a deep breath and made his move.

The door went down in spectacular fashion after a single kick, and Eliot ran into the house at full speed, gun out. The first two guards were dead before they'd even entered the hallway. The third died on the stairs and the fourth in the doorway towards a back room, maybe a kitchen. Eliot jumped over the body and charged up to the second level, dodging shots from the remaining guards who were shouting and firing holes in the wallpaper.

Eliot hoped the walls between this house and the next were thick enough.

When he reached the second floor, he rolled along a plush carpet to come up with his gun in the face of the fifth guard. He didn't even flinch as he fired, finally turning to the last guard who was charging him; that guard died before he was even in range and his body hit the ground with a thud.

There was a faint sound of shouting from nearby – neighbors hearing the guards' shots. The authorities would be on their way in a matter of minutes. But Eliot only needed one.

He kicked in the door the final guard had been standing at, blinking in the light that flooded into the hallway.

"Eliot Spencer." Amand greeted him cordially, as if they were meeting for brunch. "I suppose I should not be surprised."

"You put out a hit on Nate Ford." Eliot faced him with the coldness that had once been his whole life. "You had to know this was how it would end."

"It was worth the gamble. And I was not entirely certain you would truly involve yourself. Especially after the auction."

Eliot blinked.

"Such a pity so many of my rivals were...handled," Gauthier said. "But lovely to watch live on the internet. All the thrill of success, without any of the unpleasant odors."

"Why'd you do it?" Eliot asked.

Amand simply tightened his lips and shook his head.

Well, Eliot wasn't surprised, anyway. Gauthier had always been clever.

And Gauthier also knew Eliot, knew that Eliot would certainly kill him, but the death would be clean. Knew that Eliot, no matter his rage, would not inflict pain on his victim, not even now.

Eliot almost hated him for being right.

"Stand up. Move to the center of the floor."

Amand obeyed, though Eliot could see the tremor in his knees when he moved. Eliot circled so that his back was to a wall and not the window or the door, watching carefully, alert for any sound.

Except, perhaps, for the Shakira song that suddenly burst from his pocket, surprising them both so much it was only the extreme control he had over himself that kept Eliot from firing reflexively.

One of Eliot's stolen phones was ringing.

Gauthier swallowed, maintaining his outward calm for the most part as he settled on his carpet. "Would you like to take that? I can certainly wait."

Eliot appreciated the effort it cost the man to comport himself with that much dignity. He decided that a few more seconds wouldn't hurt either of them. The authorities were coming, but he guessed that this wouldn't take longer than he could spare.

And who the hell would be calling this phone, anyway?

He answered, lifting it to his ear, but without saying anything.

"Eliot."

Damn. Of course it was Nate. Of course it was.

"How'd you get this number?"

"Hardison. He can do some really remarkable things when he's motivated. As can you, Eliot."

"They listening?"

"No. It's just you and I right now."

Eliot believed him – Nate was a good liar, but not about the team.

"What do you want, Nate?" He made his growl as cold as he could.

"We're on our way to you. Just wait a while. We'll take care of Gauthier our own way. You don't have to do this."

Eliot could feel the falseness of Nate's own calm, as false as that in the man before him who was going to die. But with Nate, it wasn't the panic of mortality and shed blood and regret. It was a different kind.

The kind he had heard in Nate's voice when Hardison was taken by the Dustmen fraternity – under that even tone was a mix of fear and fury, stamped with ice and forced through thinking to keep it out of the soul.

But that feeling couldn't, shouldn't belong to Eliot now. Not when Eliot was about to keep his word and betray them all.

"You'll never be safe," Eliot said. "None of them will."

"And what about you?" Nate asked.

Eliot huffed something that might have been a laugh. "Doesn't matter."

"It does matter, Eliot. You matter."

Eliot swallowed a dark curse. It would be so easy, so easy, to give in to that steady voice and the man behind it. To hold Gauthier at gunpoint until the team arrived and let them all work out another way. To hand the gun, unused, to Nate, and let him take back Eliot's leash. To let himself slide back into Nate's shadow, to his place beside Hardison, beside Parker, beside Sophie. To be their Hitter again.

But that would leave Gauthier alive.

And one thing Eliot knew for sure about Amand Gauthier was not to underestimate him. Not to underestimate him the same way it was unwise to underestimate Damien Moreau, or Jim Sterling. Or Nathan Ford.

Gauthier's kill order would live as long as he did, as long as he was there to make the payout. And no jail or prison or bottom of a mine shaft would keep him from seeing the order through.

And that was assuming the order had even originated with him.

But Eliot had doubted that from the moment Hardison gave him Gauthier's name. This wasn't Amand's usual game, nor his usual tactics. From that instant forward, Eliot had only become more certain that the price on Nate's head didn't begin with Gauthier just as it hadn't with Borzoi. That someone far more dangerous was pulling the strings.

Either way, Gauthier could not be allowed to live.

If he had, for some reason, broken all normal habits to put out the bounty for Nate Ford, then he would have to die to ensure Nate's safety. If he hadn't, if there was a puppet master hiding somewhere behind Amand, then it was even more necessary for Eliot to send this message. This one, not one of Nate's teasing, superior, "look at what I can do to you," threats. Nate could ruin a man, his name, his business, but those who lived in Eliot's world didn't care about such things. Damien Moreau was behind bars, but Nate was insane if he thought Moreau was defeated. He was alive. It was enough.

So Eliot needed to send his own message. Touch Nate Ford or his team and die, you and everyone breathing the same air as you.

Even this might not be enough, not unless Eliot could hunt down whoever had put Nate in his crosshairs, but it would change the game. It would buy time while the secret puppet master recalculated. Years ago, the word had gone out that Eliot Spencer was no longer a killer. If he became one again, as he had in the fight against Moreau, that was its own eloquent statement.

These people are under Eliot Spencer's protection. He will buy their lives with blood, will rain down his vengeance as he did in the old days, and anyone who dares cross him had better be ready to die.

It had worked when he had taken out Moreau's entire goon squad; that message had kept any reprisals away from the team, because everyone knew who and what would be there to guard them. Even Moreau had taken no actions against the team, and he had had the chance – there could be no doubt about that.

Eliot was fairly sure Damien was just waiting for the right opportunity, because that's how Damien operated. Wait for an opening and then strike hard with everything necessary to finish the job.

That 'everything necessary' had once been Eliot himself.

So, no matter how Eliot twisted the situation in his mind, Gauthier still had to die. Maybe Amand had acted alone, in which case this would end the threat. But, more likely, Gauthier was working for someone else. Eliot thought it was not likely to have been on Moreau's orders, though it wasn't impossible. But there were a dozen Damien Moreaus in the world Eliot knew personally, and three times as many he knew only by reputation, and probably twice that he didn't even know existed.

Eliot had to stop this threat, by any means necessary. It was the only way to save the team. It was the only way to make sure they would be left alone.

"It's not about me," he said. "It's never been about me."

It was all about the team. Nate, Sophie, Hardison, Parker. Four people who meant absolutely everything. Four people for whom Eliot would burn down the world if necessary.

Now he was burning himself instead.

They would never forgive him for crossing this line. They would look at him the way Molly had, full of fear and horror. They would shy away from him, seeing the blood on his hands, knowing that he was not their friend and brother and protector and teddy bear – that he was a monster.

How long would it be until they were on a job and one of them would panic when they saw him fight? How quickly would they try to get away from him or avoid being left alone with him? How long would Nate be able to keep them working together when they would be waiting for Eliot to snap and kill again?

And he might – but never them. Never anyone who hid in his shadow and for whom he stood as shield. He might be a monster, but he would always be a monter who defended those in his wake...even when it meant murder to do so.

But they wouldn't know that, couldn't know that. They would be afraid of him.

And it would endanger them. The only way he could keep them safe was when he held their trust. This would be the end of that.

But it would save them.

And that was the only thing that mattered.

Eliot was willing to die for them. Killing for them was comparatively easy.

Losing them would not be.

But they would live. And Eliot would survive.

"Stay wherever you are," Eliot said. "You're too late. Don't make it worse than it has to be."

"Eliot!" Nate's voice was tense and just a touch frantic. "Don't! He's not worth it!"

Eliot knew that if Nate were here, the Mastermind would put a hand on Eliot's arm or shoulder, would hold him back physically if required. Would grab him as he'd grabbed him mid-sprint for Damien Moreau. Would meet Eliot's fire with that icy, steely calm. And it would work. Eliot would back down, would let Nate turn aside his fury and his violence. Would let Nate take back that leash again.

But Nate wasn't here. And that was the whole point.

"He's not worth it, Nate. You're right." Eliot could feel Nate breathing in relief. He hated to disappoint him, but there was no other way. "He's not worth it," he said again, "but you are."

And Eliot ended the call and took his shot.

Chapter Text

"Dammit Eliot!"

Nate was only stopped from throwing his phone by Parker who caught his arm. Sophie pulled the rental van off to one side of the road.

"The police are almost there. Is he okay?" Hardison asked.

"He's...yeah, I think so."

Parker met Nate's gaze evenly. "But he's going to kill Gauthier."

"I'm pretty sure he just did."

Sophie's whole face went tight, but she swallowed and raised her chin. "So, now what do we do?"

"I ain't having this argument about whether we go get him or not again. I ain't having it," Hardison put in.

Nate ran a hand through his hair. "Okay. Well, we probably shouldn't show up at an active crime scene unless we want to get caught all over again. But I don't know where Eliot's going next. Hardison, you better try to get a camera on his position, because he's going to destroy that phone you tracked and all the rest of them if he hasn't already."

"Way ahead of you. I got every traffic cam for a mile out looking for him." He sighed. "But he knows how to avoid them if he really works at it."

"We shouldn't try to follow him," Parker put in. "He'll just run. We need to go where he's running to and catch him there."

"She's right," Sophie said. "We can't chase him down. We need to find him."

Nate nodded, knowing they were correct. "But where will he go next? I think we might have to find out if he learned anything from Gauthier and see where that leads us."

Hardison frowned. "Well, I mean, we could, but that seems like a waste of time to me."

Nate looked at him. "How so?"

"Okay, if you were Eliot and you just killed a man, what would you do next? After you do all the creepy anti-forensic things he probably knows how to do?"

Nate blinked. "He's killed someone. He's going to try to disappear, of course."

Hardison blew out a breath. "This is Eliot, man! And, yeah, he shot that guy and all, but still. Eliot. And you know what he's gonna do right now, as soon as he thinks he's lost us?"

Nate shook his head.

Hardison smirked. "Eliot's gonna go find someplace to brood."

"Brood?" Molly asked. She had been quiet most of the trip out of Venezuela, and her eyes were wide again.

"Yeah. Have you ever noticed how much time that guy spends just thinking? I mean, it's cool, I do a lot of thinking, too. But there's no way in hell the first thing on his mind is to go find somebody else to mess up. He might try to get away from us, so we might have to follow him somewhere. But I don't think he'll even get that far before he needs to go sit in an empty room or lurk in some kind of dark alley and just contemplate stuff for a while."

Nate looked at Hardison with light in his eyes. "You're absolutely right."

"He'd go someplace out in the open," Sophie said. "He wouldn't want to feel closed in."

"And someplace high up," Parker added. "Where he could see things clearly."

Nate should have been annoyed that they had anticipated the Hitter better than himself, but he couldn't bring himself to be upset. After all, the only thing that was going to bring Eliot home was if they all wanted him back. If they all accepted everything he had done, everything he had made happen, and trusted him just the same.

Besides, even though they were right, he realized that now, they didn't know where to look.

And Nate did.

-==OOO==-

Letná Park was quiet, with only a few people wandering the paths or gathering in laughing, chattering groups for a sunrise run. Nate ignored them all, moving to the quieter end of the park where there was a railing and an overlook of the Prague Old Town, the sky above gold and shifting to blue as the sun rose.

Over where a lone man stood, bandaged hands braced on the railing.

"So." Nate leaned on the railing beside Eliot. Closer to Eliot Spencer than most people ever got without violence. "Been a long time since we were last standing here. Or, I was standing. I seem to remember you high-tailing it over the side. Which, really, I appreciate. It always was easier to let you go than find out how many of my bones you could break in one swing."

Eliot looked sideways while barely shifting his eyes, a question in them.

"No, they're not here. And I'm not wearing the earbud." Nate turned so he could see both ears clearly. "It's just me. I thought...you'd prefer it that way."

Eliot said nothing, though Nate could practically feel him vibrating with tension. Like a bow pulled taut – if Nate bent it too far, the fragile stillness that kept him here would break.

But Eliot gave a single nod, and Nate took that as a good sign.

"What happens now?" Nate asked.

Eliot gave the slightest shake of his head, a tiny twitch back and forth. "Nothing."

Nate gave him a moment to add something to that; when he didn't, Nate blew out a calculated, loud sigh. "Nothing, huh? The world just stops spinning right here, right now?"

"Something like that."

"And you?"

Eliot didn't reply.

"You know." Nate kept aiming for casual, but let a sliver of sincerity wind into his voice. "I'm...familiar with that feeling. Waiting for your heart to stop. For your breathing to quit. That feeling when you can't die because you're alive...but the world around you died instead."

Eliot snorted. "Little melodramatic, don't you think?"

"No, I don't." Nate leaned his posture even more forward. "You went to the wall on this one, Eliot. Moreau all over again. Except, this time, you can't pretend it didn't happen. And I can't help you hide from it."

"I ain't hiding."

"From what you did? No. No, you're right. You're not hiding from that." He paused and let the air fill up with expectation before he delivered the blow. "You're hiding from us."

Eliot's eyes closed briefly, the faintest flicker of despair in a face that was mostly frozen.

"You killed somebody." Nate said it simply. "You killed somebody in cold blood. And you helped a whole room of people try and succeed to kill each other."

"Yeah." Eliot's voice was granite hard and icy. "I did."

"And you bought all our lives in the process."

Nate could see Eliot's throat working as he swallowed, the slightest tip of Eliot's head as the weight and burden on his shoulders shifted.

"I know...you don't want me to say I'm sorry. Or thank you." Nate paused, read the lines of Eliot's shoulders to be certain his assessment was correct. It was. "I know...I can't even imagine...well." He stopped. "I guess I don't have to."

That was unexpected enough to make Eliot turn his head sharply. Only a little, just enough to be able to see all of Nate's face out of the corner of his eye. But it was something.

"You told me. When I was going after Dubenich and Latimer. You told me what it does to a man to take a life." Nate kept his own eyes firmly on the horizon. "I...in the strictest and most technical sense, I didn't kill them. Except. Well. I did."

Eliot's chin dipped a fraction in acknowledgement.

"Tell me, Eliot. Does the blood show?" He let his bitter smile emerge from the folds of his composed face. "Do you think they can see it on my hands when they look at me?"

Eliot's face turned back. "Nothing to see," he said.

"And why not?"

Eliot huffed. "Stop it, Nate. It's not the same."

"Of course it is."

Eliot's breathing was speeding up, and Nate watched his grip on the railing tighten.

"You're not gonna stand there and get me to tell you that it ain't so bad you killed them just so you can turn it around and use that on me. It's not the same."

Nate suppressed every visible sign of his inward elation – it was the most he'd gotten out of the man since just before Eliot crushed his earbud.

"Does it have to be?"

Eliot went stony silent again.

"Does it have to be?" Nate leaned on the question just as he leaned on the railing. "Does what you did have to be the same as what I did for you to understand that we don't see you any differently? Or can what you did and what I did be 'not the same' and still not mean I have to walk away without my Hitter?"

There was a momentary, blink-and-you-miss it pause in Eliot's breath, a hitch.

Nate dove into the gap in Eliot's defenses.

"I can't make you come back, Eliot. I've never been able to make you do anything. But if I walk away today and you don't come with me, I'm going back to the team without a Hitter. I'm going back without someone to keep us safe. Is that really what you want?"

He could have suffocated in the cold tension in the air. Nate pressed on, sensing victory ahead.

"Did you really kill him just to leave us behind? Where there wouldn't be anyone to save us next time?"

If anything, Eliot went even more frozen, more still, icy granite. Nate charged forward; he had chosen this hill as the one on which to die.

He would die on any hill under the sun for the sake of the man beside him.

The man who would, without a doubt, do the same for him.

"You're allowed to hate yourself for this if you want. God knows you already do – and the team knows it too. We all know, Eliot. We also all know who you really are. And we don't see the murderer when we look at you. But if you do, that's your choice."

Nate gave an easy shrug, taking a moment to let that much sink in before he continued.

"Either way, though, you killed that man to save all our lives. And that isn't the act of someone who would turn around and leave us to get killed by the next shark to swim into our path. Especially if that shark came after us looking for you."

Eliot unlocked his jaw and managed one word in a voice that was dry and cracked. "Quinn."

"There is no Hitter on earth who can replace you, Eliot. No one who can watch our backs, play our game, and bring us all home. There's no Hitter on earth who would even try. Imagine Parker poking Quinn in the ribs, or Hardison chattering in his ear over the comms, or Sophie correcting his grifting. Imagine Quinn working with me. And do you really think Quinn is up to fighting off whoever might come looking for you someday? Whoever might come for me?"

He had him. Nate was sure of it. Now he just needed to drive that truth into Eliot's soul so deeply it would never come loose again.

"You know what Parker said when we were coming to get you? That it was about family. And she's right, Eliot. I said it myself. We are a family. And that includes you. No one else."

Nate rolled his shoulders a bit, adding a little extra slouch into his posture. "If you walk away, or if you don't come back, we're not going to find another Eliot. There's no such thing. We'll just have to work without a safety net. Or maybe I'll take over as team Hitter. What do you think about that?"

He didn't have to imagine the barely-suppressed twitch from beside him.

"Eliot." Nate dropped all the light taunting, the over-casual delivery, even the feigned slump of his body. And he was rewarded.

Eliot finally turned to face him.

"Nate...I…"

"Eliot," Nate said again, firmly, meeting his eyes and never looking away. "Don't ask us to chase you. Don't ask us to turn our backs on you. You killed for us. You would die for us. Let us give you this much. Let us keep you."

The emotion in Eliot's eyes was brittle, far more than it had been when he admitted his association with Damien Moreau.

"But they…"

"They love you, Eliot," Nate said. He planted the flag of victory right in Eliot's heart, and locked it in place with all his power. "They love you. And you love them. You love us all enough to do what you did. And no matter how you see it, we see it for what it is. We see you for what you are."

"And what am I?" Eliot managed, a half whisper, with more fear than Nate had ever known his indomitable Hitter to show.

Nate ended the battle with just one word, the only battle Eliot had ever wanted – heart and soul – to lose.

"Ours."

-==OOO==-

Eliot wasn't sure what to expect as he approached the rental van. Nate walked beside him, sauntering like the smug bastard he was, and without a hitch of nervousness.

But that was Nate.

Nate wasn't the one who had started a riot and gotten maybe dozens of people killed – bad people, yeah, but people.

Nate wasn't the one who had run out on the team and left them to Interpol.

Nate wasn't the one who had murdered Amand and his guards.

And no matter what Nate said about it, that was bound to provoke a reaction. Even if Eliot belonged heart and soul to the team – which he did, even if he hoped they didn't know it – that didn't necessarily mean that they could forgive him so easily. Trust was hard-won with people, especially people with every reason in the world not to trust anyone else ever again.

Eliot himself hadn't trusted the team for longer than he hoped they'd ever realized – except Nate, smug bastard again – and he couldn't expect them to trust him in return.

Why the hell was he going back at all?

But before that question even translated to a hitch in his step, he felt a hand on his shoulder. The same hand that held him back from doing his worst, the hand that offered trust and friendship and welcome and safety and admiration. Nate's gentle grip couldn't have pinned down a kite, but it anchored Eliot all the same. The sheer power of the man always had.

"You're braver than that," was all Nate said.

Eliot gave him a dark scowl in return.

The door of the van slid open and suddenly Eliot was hit in the middle by a weight.

"Eliot!"

Eliot had never in his life been so grateful for a hug. He wrapped his arms around Molly tightly and buried his face in her hair so he didn't have to look at anyone else.

"Heya Botasky."

"Hi, Perky." But Molly's voice had an edge of roughness to it, not just her light-hearted greeting from what seemed like years before back in Boston. She squeezed even tighter. "You're okay?"

"Yeah."

"And everybody's safe now?"

He nodded.

"I'm sorry."

Eliot raised his head, surprised. He looked at her, very, very carefully not looking up at anyone else. "Why?"

"I told them. About Rats. And what you were going to do."

Ah. Of course. Eliot nodded. "It's okay. You were right to trust them." Then, taking a breath, "You can always trust them. No matter what."

And he finally lifted his gaze to the others.

Sophie had stepped out of the driver's seat and was standing with one hand on the door-handle, paused in the act of moving forwards or backwards. Parker was perched on the floor of the van, her legs hanging out and swinging. Hardison was leaning out the doorway, one hand braced on the ceiling, the other on Parker's shoulder.

"So can you," Molly said softly in Eliot's arms.

And she stepped away from him all at once.

Whatever Eliot expected, it wasn't the dark blur that latched onto him, pounding his back and half-yelling in his ear.

"Don't you ever, and I mean ever just go off like that again! You hear me, Eliot? It was bad enough that we had to chase you all over the damn planet, but you disappeared before I even saw you on anything other than those ten-dollar, piece-of-crap security cameras! You coulda been bleeding to death and it would have looked like a smear on the lens!"

Eliot wasn't sure he could get a full breath inside Hardison's too-hard hug, and his head was tipped at a sharp angle against the taller man, and Hardison was managing to pound him in the back where he already had some other bruises, thank you very much.

But Eliot didn't care. He hugged back fiercely and would have denied to his dying breath that there was a prickle of wetness in his eyes.

He had to swallow twice before he could make his voice work, and when he did, it came out as a whisper.

"Alec. I'm sorry."

Hardison made a sound that was half frustration and half relief and pounded him again before letting go.

Eliot wasn't even aware of the transfer from Hardison's grip to Parker's. He just existed wrapped up in one, then the other.

Which, really, was true anyway.

Parker's hug involved rocking him back and forth a little jerkily, and she didn't know where to put her hands, so she held them in fists around his shoulders, but she pressed her head to his ear and he could hear her breathing stutter.

"I'm okay, Parker," he said softly. "I'm okay."

"You're an idiot," she told him, and her voice was high and strange and it broke him a little.

"Yeah. Probably."

"Definitely." But she let him go and stared into his eyes as if he were the most complicated safe in the world. Then she poked him right in the biggest bruise on his face.

"Ow!"

She grinned. "Ha."

"Parker." Sophie was chiding, but smiling, and Parker stepped aside to let her through.

Eliot looked into Sophie's eyes with the most fear. Hardison was loyal and Parker was like him and Nate understood – but Sophie was the purest amongst them of all. Sophie had the strictest moral code, such as it was, and the most unwavering anger.

Sophie looked at him, her gaze dark and piercing.

Then she shook her head.

"You really are a moron, Eliot Spencer. And if you ever do anything like that again, I'll make sure you regret it." And she hugged him quickly, but not so quickly that he didn't see the sudden tears in her eyes.

"I won't," he told her. He didn't hold her as tightly as he had Hardison or Parker – Sophie was breakable in a way the others weren't. Even now, when her spine was pure steel. He held her gently, and he let her be the one to draw him to her shoulder.

And it was there, in her arms, warm and soft like a mother's, that Eliot finally felt truly safe. His throat closed up completely and he thought he might burst into tears. It took everything he had to fight the urge to reach out and sweep them all into his arms, Molly too, just so he could hold them all at once. Just so they would all be safe, all in his shadow, his shelter, where he could keep them.

"Silly boy," Sophie murmured against his hair. "Did you really think we don't feel exactly the same way about you?"

Then there was a hand on his shoulder again, that bracing hand that held his leash and had given him his heart.

Eliot raised his head and looked into Nate's eyes.

"Thank you."

That surprised Eliot enough that he had to gulp and ask, "For what?"

"Coming home."

And Eliot owed Parker his damn life, because he might not have been able to stop the tears from betraying him right then and there except that she scoffed very loudly behind him.

"Of course he did."

And Eliot knew that Parker knew how close it was, that he almost hadn't, that it was something of a miracle he was here and not halfway across the world already, and that miracle was named Nate Ford. He knew Parker knew all of it. But he loved her certainty anyway. It gave him the fortitude to drag all his emotions back into their cage.

Sophie released him, shaking her head at his refusal to cry.

"Um?" Molly asked. She'd sidled up beside Parker and was tipping her head. "This isn't home. We're not even on the right continent."

But Hardison winked at her. "That's the funny thing about home. It's not about where. It's about who. So, yeah, you ain't home right now, but we sure as hell are."

Eliot had never agreed with Hardison more, but he wasn't about to admit that, either.

And there were a million things they should be talking about – like the potential threat to the team if Amand wasn't working alone, the fallout of international criminal syndicates making a connection between Eliot and Nate Ford's team, into what shape Eliot was going to rearrange John Connell's face if Nate hadn't done it already – but right then, Eliot was content to let it all wait. There would be time later to discuss the implications of all that had happened, to get Molly home to her father (and teach him a lesson about loyalty and honor he wouldn't soon forget) and get them both to safety, to get Hardison to flood the internet with the necessary mis-information to keep the team safe, to heal and rebuild and prepare for the next job, the next game, the next war.

But that was all for another day.

Right now, all Eliot wanted was all he'd ever wanted. And, if he was honest with himself, he knew that they wanted the same thing.

This chance they had all thought gone forever – to be together. To be a family.

Anything that dared intrude on this, that dared shatter this moment with the only people who mattered, well, Eliot would make sure it was very, very sorry.

Which is why, of course, Nate leaned over in that very moment, face pink with glee and twisted in a smile that made most sensible people run for their lives.

"Oh, and by the way, Eliot? Don't you ever sic Sterling on us again."

Eliot flinched.

"You did what?" three voices exploded in pure outrage.

Eliot glared at Nate. Nate grinned back.

Eliot held up his hands, not sure which of the three was safest to look at, so he settled on Molly who was giggling into her sleeve.

And he realized that he'd been wrong. There was no possible way he could fail to return to them, no possible way he could have kept running, kept away from them, kept on the path he thought he'd been condemned to when he took the shot that needed taking. Even if there was yelling – and there was definitely going to be yelling. Because this was the only place he belonged. The only place he could breathe.

Nate had been right. Eliot was theirs. Through fire, blood, hell, and the angry faces around him now. No matter what the world threw at them, or Sterling did, or the team threw at each other, this was Eliot's life now.

He only hoped they figured that out, too, before they killed him out of sheer spite – and before he killed Nate for being a smug, all-knowing, brilliant, infuriating bastard.

"I can explain."

"Dammit, Eliot!" Parker and Hardison yelled in unison. Sophie was fuming beside them, and Nate had his arms crossed and was exchanging winks and waggling eyebrows with Molly.

And this was his reason to live?

Yeah, it really was.