Of Masks and Revelations
The first time it happens, she's unprepared. It's exhilarating, at first, watching him in his element but it's five against one; a brutal fight, and it's not until they're in the car and on their way back to the hotel that she realises Eliot didn't walk away uninjured.
There's a dark bruise blossoming across his cheekbone, spreading up into his eye, a smear of tacky blood at the corner of his mouth, and he has his arm pressed against his ribs like they ache. She brushes her hand over his left shoulder and feels him flinch, remembers too late Hardison's warnings about broken bones and the plates and pins holding them together. She winces at him in apology.
"I'm okay, kiddo," he says, and grins at her with bloodied teeth.
That time, she believes him.
The second time, she's more prepared, but it's worse, because one of the private security guards had been carrying a knife and there's a deep, bloody cut across his forearm that won't stop bleeding. There's a hitch in his breathing that she's come to know means broken ribs, and she's utterly miserable, because if she'd done her job better, maybe the whole thing could have been avoided.
Parker pulls out the stitch kit, trading glances with Eliot and Breanna tenses, thinking fuck, here it comes, before he pulls her into a careful hug.
"You'll do better, next time," he says.
The blood won't come out from under her nails and she scrubs frantically at her hands, remembering how it had felt, pumping out under her palms, Eliot broken and bleeding and shot, wrong place, wrong time, just a stupid bit of bad luck … she sucks in a choked breath and goes back to scrubbing, ignoring the sting of the harsh hospital soap.
Her hands are bright red when she finally gets all the blood off, rejoining Sophie and Parker in the waiting room for minutes-hours-days until the surgeon comes back out, a soft smile on her exhausted face. "He's going to be okay," she says, and the three of them sigh in relief.
"When can we see him?" Breanna asks, and the surgeon leads them through to his room.
He's pale and pained, a bulky cast on his injured arm, bags of blood hanging behind his head, running into his veins, but he smiles when he sees them. "Remind me to look up bulletproof sleeves, huh?" he jokes, faintly, and none of them laugh, because it had been too damn close, this time.
It's her fault, the next time. They're setting up the equipment for a con in an empty office and she trips one one of the trailing cables. He's quick, grabs her to stop her falling, but she can't halt her momentum and her forehand cracks him right in the face. Both of them grunt at the impact.
He reels back a couple of steps, both hands clamped over his face, blood dripping from between his fingers. "I think you broke my nose, kiddo," he says thickly, disbelief and wonder and amusement and pain all mixing in his voice.
She's not sure if she should laugh or cry, gut churning with guilt, expecting him to be angry.
He takes the ice pack from her, pressing it to his face, the other hand patting her on the shoulder. "You have one hell of a headbutt there, kiddo," he says.
It takes days for the black eyes to fade, and even longer for her guilt to do the same.
She learns, about the best ice packs and when he'll take something and when he won't, slowly figures out that some drugs make him groggy or nauseated or wired. Learns about heat for the old nagging injuries and cold for the new ones. Learns the signs of him having a bad day, when the ghosts of his old injuries haunt his bones, knows when to offer aid and when to leave him alone, but she still envies the ease that Sophie and Parker have around him, watches with careful amusement as Parker pokes his less tender bruises and he grumbles about it in a slow way that means he's not really annoyed. It's love and trust and a bond that is slowly forming, like a growing seed, one that just needs more time before it blossoms into its full form.
She'd come into the team filled with stories of his heroics, narrated with love by Hardison- and despite how he feels about it, there is something heroic in offering your own body up as sacrifice to keep people - strangers- safe. It's different, now that she's seen the cost, seen him quiet and wan with pain, seen him gather himself up to keep going when it would have made more sense to stop, because the job needs him to, seen him so utterly exhausted that even breathing seems like hard work. The stories don't mention any of it- the toll it takes on him, on the rest of them, and she thinks maybe that's for the best, because heroes don't bleed or sweat or puke.
Well, most of them, because he's a hero to the people they save, even if he won't accept the label. Even if he insists that he's just doing his job, that he has more to do, that how can he stop when the bad guys just keep coming?
She watches him, slumped on the recliner, an ice pack on his knee, another on his shoulder, bandages peeking out from under his ratty t-shirt, the one that's soft and gentle on his skin, the one he only wears on the worst days, and wonders just how much longer he can keep going, already knowing the answer…
As long as I can, kiddo.