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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Leverage fic: The Hurt/Comfort Job (1/2)

December 10th, 2015 (08:45 pm)
listless

feeling: listless

Title: The Hurt/Comfort Job

Disclaimer: I do not own Leverage.

A/N: Fills my Wild Card for h/c bingo. Set in earlier seasons. Unbeta'ed.

Summary: Nate accounts for everything -- except the things that really matter.



-o-

Nate accounts for everything.

He plans for the double cross, and he counts on being tagged by security. He takes the alarm system into consideration, and plays a foil to spoof the mark. He’s got Hardison reroute the camera feed, and he sends Parker down the side of a building. He has Eliot tie up the last of the security team in a janitor closet while he and Sophie just walk out the front door.

Nate accounts for everything.

Well, everything except the SUV that careens into their lane on the way home. Nate’s got his hands on the wheel, but there’s only so many ways he can turn, and they all end with a collision he just can’t avoid.

Nate accounts for everything.

So he’s not surprised when pain explodes in his head and he hears the tires screech. He reaches his hand out to brace Sophie, the word of warning on his lips when everything goes dark.

-o-

It comes back to him in a trickle. It tickles the back of his mind, pulling him to consciousness with a quiet persistence that Nate can’t fight. By the time he realizes the sound is actually the engine of the car settling down, his body is so fraught with pain that it actually doesn’t matter.

In fact, for about ten seconds, nothing matters at all. It’s all Nate can do to keep himself breathing, hot, tight breaths squeezed out through his clenched jaw. Everything hurts, from the pounding in his skull to the feeling of his toes crushed up under the dashboard. The worst of it, though, is his chest. Like he’s being squeezed to death, a crushing vice that threatens his consciousness once more.

It would be easy. Embracing oblivion, it’s the easiest move of all. And it’s not exactly outside of Nate’s wheelhouse. There’s a reason he drinks so heavily, because if he’s honest -- and that’s his thing, isn’t it? -- reality isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. The truth, for all that Nate wants to believe in its worth, is sometimes the worst thing of all.

But he can’t.

His breathing hitches, and the pain abates just enough to give him leverage.

At that point, it’s a rock he knows he’s going to flip, and this time, he manages to get his eyes open.

Not that it does him any good.

The world is upside, and he can’t make heads or tails out of anything. It’s more than a little disconcerting -- to feel so utterly lost. Nate’s the mastermind, after all. He’s all about control.

And this time, he doesn’t know where he is. He doesn’t remember why he’s here. He doesn’t know what the hell is going on.

All he knows is that he’s upside, strapped inside Hardison’s decimated van.

Worse still, there’s no one in sight.

-o-

That’s when Nate panics.

He’s not proud of it, but he’s also pretty aware that there doesn’t seem to be anyone around to notice. That’s the thing about having a team, Nate’s found. Without a team, he’s got nothing to keep him going. He’s got nothing to keep him from drowning in the bottom of a bottle. He likes to talk about how his team needs him -- how Parker needs him to keep her sane, how Hardison needs him to keep him from going over the top, how Eliot needs him to keep him from killing people, how Sophie needs him to keep some version of herself real -- but that’s just half the story.

It’s not even the important half.

Because Nate needs his team.

He needs them to give him a reason to get up in the morning. He needs them to give his life meaning, purpose. His team is the only thing that has made any sense since Sam died, and without them--

Without them, Nate’s got nothing.

Nothing.

His heart is pounding now, sweat breaking out over his body. His throat constricts, and he feels tears sting in his eyes.

This isn’t happening.

No, not to Nate. Not when Nate accounts for everything.

Every. Last. Damn. Thing.

And it’s not the hissing car. It’s not the thick smell of gasoline, burning up his nostrils and down his throat. It’s not the pain in his chest that makes him feel like he’s suffocating. It’s not being stuck upside and having no memory what happened.

It’s his team.

It’s his team.

The last time someone counted on him, the last time he was responsible for someone -- well, that didn’t end so well. He still feels the cold, hard feeling in the pit of his stomach from knowing he let his son down. There’s nothing Nate can do to fix that.

But his team.

That can’t be a lost cause.

It can’t.

It’s almost a delusional belief, and Nate’s not quite so far gone not to realize it. But he doesn’t care. Everyone has a hook -- everyone.

And this, apparently, is Nate’s.

He’ll do anything for his team.

For all the things Nate’s accounted for, he’ll be damned if he didn’t miss that one entirely.

-o-

After Nate panics, he makes a plan.

It’s not so much a plan, really. No, it’s more of reconnaissance.

Hell, Nate should call it what it is.

After several agonizing moments, Nate finally turns his head.

And then immediately wishes he hadn’t.

Because hanging right there next to him is Sophie.

She’s still buckled in, her torso held tight by the locked seatbelt, but her eyes are closed, and Nate can see rivulets of blood running down her face and collecting on the tip of her nose. Her hair has fallen forward, partially obscuring her features, but Nate can see the blossoming shades of red and blue all over her cheek.

Suddenly, none of the pain matters. The ache in his chest, the throbbing in his head -- it’s all background noise, as far as Nate is concerned. Because that’s Sophie.

Nate’s lost a hell of a lot in his life, but not Sophie.

He swallows hard, ignoring the pain that spreads across his chest. It’s all he can do to lick away the blood from his lips and get enough saliva in his mouth to speak. “Sophie--”

Her name is garbled on his tongue, and he has to double himself down, renewing all his effort to try again. “Sophie.

This time, the two syllables are coherent, but Sophie doesn’t even flinch.

Tears burn Nate’s eyes, and he grinds his teeth together. “Sophie, please--”

He’s not sure what he’s asking, but then, he probably never really is. Sure, he always has a plan, and he’s always telling people what marks to hit and how to hit them, but it’s never really that simple, is it? Nate can ask his team to break into offices and to tell lies, but it’s more than that.

Nate’s not asking them to do a job. No, Nate’s asking them to trust him with everything. He’s asking them to give him everything -- everything that matters, everything they can’t afford to lose. When they tell him they can’t, he tells them they can. He’d like to think it’s because he trusts them -- and he does -- but it’s also because he doesn’t let himself realize all the implications.

He doesn’t let himself think about Parker getting trapped in a vault she can’t get out of it. He doesn’t let himself think about Hardison hacking his way into a system he can’t outwit. He doesn’t let himself think about Eliot getting into a fight he can’t win.

And he never thinks about Sophie talking her way into a mark that finds her out before she can cut out.

Nate has no idea what he’s asking.

Please, do your jobs.

Please, bring justice to those who have been denied.

Please, make bad people pay.

Please, be my team, my family, my purpose, my everything. Please don’t let me down, and please don’t make me change.

Please.

He’s losing it again, his emotions teetering right on the brink with his consciousness. The pain is swelling again. “Sophie--”

If he’s lost Sophie, then he’s lost everything.

His heart thuds; his chest constricts. Pain spasms through him as his breathing hitches.

This can’t be happening.

This can’t be happening.

He shakes his head again, tears wet on his face.

This can’t be happening.

He breaks then, everything catching on a sob.

“Sophie!”

-o-

“Nate?”

He’s so startled by the answer that it takes Nate a good five seconds to realize that it’s not Sophie who’s talking.

It takes him another three to see Parker.

Tousled and rattled with a fresh cut on her face. In one piece and just as crazy as ever.

“Parker,” he manages to say, both relieved and surprised.

The thief is bracing herself between the seats, padding gingerly on the floor of the van, which is currently serving as the ceiling. “Just so we’re clear,” Parker says, looking a bit concerned. “That wasn’t part of the plan.”

Nate groans. “No, Parker, that wasn’t part of the plan.”

“Okay, good,” she says. “Because that would have been a terrible plan.”

-o-

The good news is that Parker is mobile and relatively unhurt. She scoots around easily, positioning herself in front of Nate before looking at the seat belt that is still holding him tight.

Nate grimaces as she starts to prod.

“You’re not tangled, at least,” she says, balancing carefully against the dashboard. “I can even reach the release mechanism.”

Nate’s throat constricts and his breathing hurts. “Oh,” he says, unable to think of anything else.

Parker’s hands are persistent, and it’s all Nate can do to keep from crying out as she brushes against his torso.

And that’s the bad news.

Parker can get him out, no problem.

But Nate’s not sure he can stay conscious for it. His vision is already gauzy around the edges, and the simple act of breathing is almost more than he can handle. If they take it slow, though. If Parker can help brace him and make the transition smooth and easy. It could work--

Parker’s hand locks on the release.

Nate starts to shake his head. “Parker, no--”

She pushes it.

Gravity does the rest, and Nate’s falling again, the protest stuck in his throat as he hits the ceiling and everything goes dark.

-o-

When Nate comes to, it’s not dark anymore. If anything, it’s painfully bright, but when Nate tries to turn his head away, everything hurts.

His stomach turns, and for one horrible second, he thinks he may be sick. The effort involved with that thought, though, is too much, and he forces himself to swallow, smacking his dry lips together as he squints his eyes.

Luck turns marginally in his favor and the sunlight is blocked out.

Parker is above him, staring down at him with a look of concern and uncertainty. She may be uncertain if she’s confused, or she may simply be concerned that she’s uncertain.

Honestly, Nate’s not sure it matters.

“I’m sorry,” Parker says, and she sounds like she means it. “I should have seen that coming.”

She probably should have, but there’s a reason Parker’s the thief and not the mastermind. She misses things outside of herself, sometimes the most obvious things.

He can’t fault her for that.

“It’s okay,” he manages to say. He grunts, trying to prop himself up on his elbows. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”

She moves back a little, giving him a little wider berth as he tries to sit up.

It’s not an easy task, and the upright position makes Nate want to pass out again. At this point, it’s a toss up between his head and his chest, but it’s all safe to say that Nate’s still in a lot of pain.

Even so, he lifts his head enough to give Parker a critical second look. “You sure you’re okay?”

Parker nods. “I’ve been told that I have abnormal reflexes,” she explains. “Most people tense up when they sense danger.” She shrugs. “I don’t.”

That isn’t surprising to Nate on a variety of levels. It’s why she’s Parker, after all. “Well, you do have some practice with free fall,” he observes, trying to work his way up to his feet. “But you’re sure you’re okay? You didn’t hit your head too hard?”

“Really, I’m fine,” she says, standing next to him, a little closer than she normally would as he gets his footing. “But you -- I didn’t realize you were hurt.”

“Yeah, well,” Nate says, taking a long moment to make sure he isn’t going to pass out again. “I sort of thought it was implied.”

At this, Parker actually does wince apologetically. “Sorry.”

Nate takes a careful breath, mindful of his ribs. “It’s okay,” he says. “I’m out now. But what about everyone else?”

Parker turns, looking back to the van. “Well, Sophie shouldn’t be too hard.”

Something pulls at Nate’s chest, and he’s not sure if it’s his injuries or the emotion. “We’ll have to be gentle,” he says.

Parker nods. “I can do that.”

“She could have spinal injuries,” he says, trying to make his mind work. Everything is sluggish, though, and whatever knowledge he might have is struggling to make it through the pain.

“I said I can do that,” Parker repeats, face set now. She looks back at Nate with a serious nod. “Trust me.”

Trust.

The hardest thing of all.

Not because Nate’s an honest man working among thieves.

But because Nate likes control. He likes to work every case like a chess board, moving his people around like pieces. He’s not so arrogant as to think of them as pawns, but he knows who his queen is.

But trust.

Between the aching chest and the splitting headache, that’s really about all Nate has left.

He nods, brows drawn tight together. “Okay, then.”

-o-

Parker is strange, to say the least, and of them all, she’s the least likely to acclimate naturally to most situations. Her verbal skills have dramatically improved since they’ve been a team, but she still needs to be coached on basic interpersonal things more often than not.

That said, no one is more graceful that Parker.

Sure, she’s socially awkward and downright disturbing sometimes, but put her in a room full of laser security, and she’s better than a ballerina.

It’s no surprise, then, how easily she re-enters the car, slipping in through Nate’s shattered window and bracing herself against the flipped dash. It’s hard for Nate to keep himself upright, but he manages to position himself for a clear view, watching with baited breath as Parker gingerly steps over the shattered glass toward Sophie.

“You’ll need to be careful,” Nate approaches. “Support her neck.”

“Like a bag of diamonds,” Parker says, somewhat absently. “Drawstring. Hold it wrong, and they’re gone.”

“Right,” Nate says. “Just as valuable.”

Parker nods to herself, reaching out tentatively toward Sophie’s upside down figure. At contact, it’s Parker who flinches. Sophie shows no sign of awareness.

“We’ll need to get her out to examine her,” Nate says.

Parker reaches toward the buckle.

“Careful, careful,” Nate says, itching to go in after her. He’s not as graceful as Parker, though, even in his best condition. Injured and listing as he is, he figures he’d do more harm than good.

“She’s alive,” Parker says, repositioning herself to catch Sophie. “I can feel her breathing.”

“Good, good,” Nate says, almost daring to hope. “That’s good.”

Parker works carefully, the way Nate has seen her handle high end safes and expensive jewels. Her fingers are deft and her posture is stable as she releases the buckle and Sophie starts to fall.

It’s all Nate can do to hold his ground; as much as he wants to move forward, to help, he worries that any movement will shatter his precarious equilibrium. He’s clinging stubbornly to consciousness, but the pressure in his chest is nothing to ignore.

Parker slips a little, and Sophie nearly falls. Nate inhales sharply, regretting it when the pain flares up in his side and the stench of gasoline almost makes him vomit. Parker recovers quickly, though, expertly turning Sophie until she’s half cradled in her arms before she turns back to start extricating them both from the smoking wreckage.

Nate’s on the wrong side of the car for this, but by the time he convinces his battered body to move, Parker is already around the front, still dragging Sophie with her. Sophie is limp in her grasp, arms dangling down, and Nate hobbles along several more paces with them away from the car before Parker settles her on the ground.

Heart thudding against the back of his ribs, Nate half falls to the ground himself, reaching out to adjust Sophie, straightening her head and smoothing back her blood-matted hair.

It’s easier to see now, just how bad the injury is. The thick gash runs along the side of her temple, splitting the skin wide. It’s crusted with blood and still weeping, and no matter how much Nate knows that head wounds bleed like a bitch, it’s still hard to see.

Harder still is Sophie herself, still and inanimate. She’s a grifter; she’s never unaware. Her entire existence revolves around playing up a persona, creating a character.

And now she’s just lying here, and Nate can’t help but feel responsible.

He’d been at the wheel. Not just of the van, but of the mission. Of this entire lifestyle and this band of thieves that’s become his family. This is his.

His eyes are burning now, and his throat feels tight. With shaking fingers, he brushing the strands of her hair back again, moving his hands down to straight her coat vainly. She’d hate this, if she were awake. She’d hate to look out of sorts.

“What about Hardison?” Parker asks, voice breaking Nate’s train of thought. “Eliot?”

Nate looks up stiffly, glancing back toward the van. He’s been so preoccupied with what’s in front of him that he hasn’t let himself think about what’s not there. That’s the problem, then, and always will be. His job is to see everything, to account for everything.

He swallows hard.

Hell of a job he’s doing this time around.

Sophie’s unconscious, but Parker’s at anxious attention. It occurs to Nate that someday he may not be able to save them all.

But he refuses to let himself think that this is that day.

“Okay,” Nate says, lumbering to his feet. He nearly falters, but manages to hold himself upright with a wince. “They’re next.”

-o-

Nate can put on a good show, but he’s barely able to keep himself upright. He makes it back over to the van, but the best he can do is lean against it with a serious expression while Parker does the hard work.

Parker, at least, is too preoccupied to notice.

With the van being upside down, reaching the handles is no easy task, and given the condition of the metal, there’s no guarantee that the doors will open anyway. Parker’s resourceful, though, and stronger than she looks. Of everyone in the team, she’s the one Nate would trust most to defend herself after Eliot, and she doesn’t disappoint.


It takes a little finagling, but Parker pops the first door. The second swings open wildly after it, almost falling off the hinges. Parker is already inside by the time Nate limps over, and his breath catches at the sight.

The back is a mess, strewn with broken glass and debris. Hardison’s equipment -- half of which Nate’s never been able to identify -- is in pieces. The damage is almost impossible to quantify, and Nate’s mind reverts back to his days as an insurance adjustor, unconsciously tallying up the costs. When it hits the millions, Nate remembers that money’s not the issue.

The van’s not even the issue.

The issue is Hardison, who is lying in a crumpled heap at the back of the seat. It’s hard to believe that his tall, lanky body can be tucked so small, and at first, Nate can’t tell if the other man is breathing or not.

Parker is already on top of him, unfurling the long limbs and pulling him up. “Hardison,” she says, more than a hint of urgency in her voice. “Hardison.

Whether it’s the movement or the sound of desperation in Parker’s voice, Hardison visibly stirs. Parker almost has him on his feet before his eyes open, and he stumbles and curses as he gets his feet, wobbling in disorientation.

“--the hell?” Hardison asks, words not quite coherent as his eyes slip open and shut.

Parker jostles him, propping him up against her. “You’re okay,” she says, as if she can will it to true. “Hardison, you’re okay.”

Hardison doesn’t look okay, but he is upright for the time being. That’s something, Nate tells himself.

His confidence -- slight though it may be -- falters, though, Four members of the team are accounted for, which is pretty good.

But not good enough.

Because…

“Where’s Eliot?” Nate asks, his voice shakier than he intends.

Parker glances back at him, face twisted in a half scowl.

“Eliot,” Nate says again, taking a tentative step inside the back. “He was here, right?”

“Yeah,” Parker says. “He and Hardison, they were arguing when the accident happened. I lost sight of him…”

She trails off, eyes skittering around.

Nate’s already ahead of her this time. The van’s a bigger model -- Hardison never goes for subtle or small -- but it’s still not a huge interior area. Not big enough to effectively hide someone. There are no windows in the back, which means there’s no way Eliot’s been ejected, so he has to be here.

Eliot has to be here.

“Computers, man,” Hardison slurs. “Whole damn wall came down.”

Nate understands, cursing his own concussion for the fact that he didn’t think of it sooner. The debris, it’s not just millions of dollars worth of equipment. It’s a mess, spread out over the roof, making the entire space crowded and cluttered.

Which means…

Nate pulls the first piece out of the way, grimacing heavily as pain flares through his torso. He pulls a second piece of debris up and throws it out, almost catching himself on a cry. The third and fourth hurt just as bad, leaving him breathless and sweating, but he can’t bring himself to stop.

Until he sees a hand.

“Eliot,” he says, voice starting to rise. “Come on, Eliot.”

Nate manages to move a few more pieces, but it only goes to show just how trapped Eliot is. Hardison’s right about the computers -- the entire bank has been dislodged. While the smaller pieces have been smashed and scattered, the large frame that Hardison used to support it all has been bent and knocked loose, effectively trapping Eliot underneath.

With effort, Nate tries to move it, pulling so hard he feels something pop in his chest. Blinking back tears, he has to stop back. Panting, he looks at Parker. “I need your help.”

She’s already moving, gently easing Hardison back to the floor as she steps gingerly toward Nate. She sidles in on the other side, bracing herself as she lift. The metal creaks, and the entire van groans ominously. Grunting, Parker nods downward. “You’re going to have to--”

She doesn’t have to say it. As the metal shift, Nate reaches down, taking Eliot under the shoulders and hefting his upper body up.

“No, no, no, man,” Hardison says. “That equipment -- it’s sensitive.”

Parker has to adjust her stance, shifting to get a better grip. “It’s also broken.”

“And replaceable,” Nate adds, doing everything he can to keep the pain from knocking him back on his ass before he can finish this. “None of you are.”

Hardison blinks again, eyes zoning out. “My equipment, man,” he mumbles. “My van.

Ignoring him, Parker strains a little more, freeing up Eliot’s legs and giving Nate just enough space to drag Eliot clear. Before Nate can even situate Eliot on the ceiling of the van, Parker lets the debris drop.

“Is he--?” she starts, but she doesn’t finish. Nate imagines she can’t.

Nate’s fingers are shaking, but he can feel the thump of Eliot’s heart as he presses his palm against the other man’s chest. He’s so relieved that he could just about pass out.

He almost does, actually.

For a second, he wallows in that, grateful that his luck hasn’t run out yet.

But then Parker gasps, and Hardison squawks. “Oh, man,” he says with questionable lucidity. He looks wild-eyed, blood trickling from his nose and his right hand cradled protectively in front of him. “Oh, man. This is some crazy shit right here. This is crazy.

That’s when Nate takes a good look at Eliot -- not the problem of extricating Eliot from the debris or the task of making sure all four members of his team are accounted for -- but Eliot.

Eyes closed, face pale. There are several scratches on his cheek and a gouge on his forehead. His hair is mussed, a few blood soaked strands stuck to his forehead and the rest fanned away from his head.

And a thick, metal shard protrudes out of Eliot’s gut, piercing him all the way through.

-o-

Hardison vomits, but Nate feels just as queasy. He’s pretty sure if he lets himself throw up, he’ll pass out altogether, and he can’t let that happen.

Not yet.

Not. Yet.

He takes a breath, forcing himself to blink several times. He hobbles to his feet, nodding to Parker. “Okay, we need to get him out of here.”

Parker is stuck in place, one hand still on Hardison as he gets shakily back to his feet, looking paler than Nate’s ever seen him before. Parker’s face is tight, almost painfully blank, but she can’t keep the panic out of her eyes.

She shakes her head. “Maybe we shouldn’t--”

“No, come on,” Nate says, limping his way around. He considers trying to lift Eliot himself, but he’s pretty sure that’s a terrible idea. “We need to--”

“No, man, we need to not be in this mess,” Hardison interjects, entirely unhelpful.

Parker talks over him. “He’s got metal sticking out of him,” she says, voice cracking just a little at the end. “We could make it worse--”

Nate still shakes his head, kicking a few more pieces of debris out of the way as he tries to maneuver in the small space. “We could,” he agrees. “But if he’s still in the van when it explodes, it’ll be worse.”

Parker’s carefully composed facade breaks completely, then, eyes going wide and the color draining from her cheeks. Hardison audibly gasps, a sound that is hysterical and incredulous all at once. “Explodes?” he asks, leaning himself heavily on the side of the van as he tries to get a better look at Nate. “The van is going to explode?

Parker’s eyes dart forward to the cab, and Nate can see her make the necessary logical conclusions. “Force of the impact, cut the fuel lines,” she says. Her eyes meet Nate’s again. “It’s a ticking time bomb.”

With effort, Nate wets his lips, trying his best to lever the door open a little more. “I smelled gas earlier -- a lot of it,” he says. Because he’s been casing the situation like any other job since this started. It’s a habit he doesn’t know how to break, one he’s not sure he wants to break. One that saves their lives -- most of the time. He swallows hard, keeping the nagging pain at bay as best he can. “Honestly, I’m a little surprised it hasn’t gone up yet.”

“We were low on gas,” Parker says. “End of the job, we worked in a few extra runs we didn’t count on.”

“And some of it was luck, probably,” Nate says with a grunt, almost stumbling. Pain rising up his throat like bile and he bites back a wave of nausea. “Or, you know. Relatively speaking.”

Hardison snorts. “Then why the hell are we still here?”

“Well, I don’t want to be,” Nate says. He looks to Parker. “Can you get him?”

Parker slips seamlessly away from Hardison, moving carefully to pull Eliot up. There’s no good way to do it, not with Eliot’s mass and the metal in his side, but if anyone is good at being precise it’s Parker. It’s almost tedious work, and Parker has to walk half stooped over to get Eliot out, grunting an apology while she drags Eliot over the loose debris and the lip of the doorframe.

As they make progress, Nate goes to Hardison, taking the younger man by the arm. Hardison doesn’t object -- not exactly -- but he mutters a colorful string of curses and invectives that Nate only has half a mind to process.

They catch up to Parker, coming along her side as she drags Eliot over the shrubby grass on the side of the road. By the time they get to wear Sophie is, it’s hard to say if Nate’s supporting Hardison or the other way around. Parker almost drops Eliot but stops herself at the last moment, lying his shoulders down carefully before standing upright once again.

Nate looks at them, Sophie and Eliot on the ground. Parker and Hardison standing shoulder to shoulder behind them. They’re together; they’re alive.

Hardison lists to the side a little, even as Parker props him up. “Well,” he says. “Maybe it’s not so bad.”

Nate opens his mouth to reply -- agreement, denial, he’s not sure which -- but he doesn’t have to.

Because that’s when the van explodes and answers for him.

-o-

In some ways, it’s kind of overwhelming. The van has just exploded and it’s currently on fire. All the equipment will be a total loss, and there’s something oddly jarring about the fact that they’d been in that van mere seconds before it happened.

In other ways, Nate finds it sort of a relief. The van is gone; that problem is done with. Now Nate can focus his attention on other, more pressing things.

His team.

“Okay,” he says, turning back to them. “Okay.”

Hardison looks at him like he’s crazy, but Parker seems to be holding it together. Nate nods again, zeroing in on her. “So we need to know what happened.”

“The other car,” she concludes for him. “On it.”

She takes off, not quite at a run, but her lopsided jog is better than any of them could manage at the moment.

Hardison shifts his weight from one foot to the other, looking at Nate like he might have grown horns. “On it?” he asks, like it’s the most ludicrous thing he’s heard in the world. “Did y’all miss the part where the van exploded? My van? My Lucille?”

Nate considers this to be a good sign. Hardison is ranting about nothing, which means he’s probably more lucid than Nate has previously considered. He steps closer, squinting up to get a better look at the younger man. “How’s your head?”

Hardison swats his hand away. “My head is fine,” he says, even as he almost falls over from his hasty retreat.

Nate looks down, noting again the hand Hardison is keeping close to his chest. He follows up the line of Hardison’s arm and realizes quickly that his wrist is broken. “And that?” he asks, reaching out to touch.

Hissing in pain, Hardison glares wildly. “That is broken, thank you very much,” he snaps.

With a sympathetic nod, he looks back to Sophie and Eliot on the ground. Neither one has moved since being extracted from the van, but they both seem to be breathing. “Sophie’s got a head wound,” he observes. “And Eliot--”

“Has a piece of Lucille sticking out of him,” Hardison supplies for him. “I think we can see that.”

Nate hobbles, going to his knees, checking for bleeding. “Metal must be keeping him from bleeding too much,” he notes, doing his best to check the wound without jarring it.

“If he wakes up, you can tell him that bit of good news,” Hardison mutters.

Just then, Parker jogs back. She’s breathing heavily. “Other driver’s dead,” she says. “And there’s not a lot of traffic on this road.”

With effort, Nate straightens on his knees, looking back to the smoking van. Someone will be by eventually, he knows. Someone is more than likely to see the smoke and call it in, too. It goes against Nate’s instincts to wait for help, though. Involving the authorities is messy, considering what they do.

He glances back at Eliot. His eyes linger on Sophie.

But they need help. And Nate’s not above using anything to get the job done.

To get his team safe.

This is just another job.

Just another con.

“Okay,” he says, pulling his scattered wits together. “Parker, do you still have your phone?”

She rummages in her pocket and pulls it out.

“Good,” Nate says. “Put in a call to 911. There’s no need to lie about anything. The truth can be our friend this time.”

She nods shortly, turning away to dial.

Nate turns to Hardison. “While she gets the ambulance here, I need you to start working on our covers.”

Hardison screws his face up. “With what, exactly? My broken hand?”

Nate shrugs. “Is your phone broken?”

“My phone?” Hardison asks. “Is my phone -- I tell you --”

He rustles around with obvious effort before managing to pull the device out of his pocket. Nate waits expectantly while Hardison pokes at it, manipulating it surprisingly well with one hand.

Hardison flushes. “No, my phone is not broken,” he says. “And you’re damn lucky I’m ambidextrous.”

“Good,” Nate says. He nods toward the wreck. “Toss our current IDs in the car, and that should buy us some time while you line up something else.”

Hardison flounced, sitting down with difficulty on the ground next to Eliot. “Hit by a car, the van explodes, break my hand -- it’s all good,” he mutters. “Everyone still wants miracles.”

Nate ignores him -- he’s too tired to even try indulging Hardison at a time like this -- and reaches out to tip Sophie’s face toward him. The movement steals his breath, but she doesn’t even stir.

“Making cover stories with one hand,” Hardison continues crossly. “One hand and a headache on a phone with a cracked screen.”

Parker comes back, rocking on the balls of her feet anxiously. “Okay, they’re on their way,” she says. “Fifteen minutes, tops.”

Hardison huffs indignantly. “I’ve got the Bakers lined up for you and Sophie, and I can pull off Eliot as your younger brother,” he says, still tapping away one-handed. “A little work, and I think I can make Parker your sister, but I’m going to have to tag along as her plus one. All the insurance should be covered, and the family connections should keep us in line as medical proxies, just in case.”

Just in case, Nate thinks, looking at Sophie’s still features. Just in case, he shudders, glancing at Eliot’s limp body. His chest aches with new ferocity.

“Now what?” Parker asks anxiously.

Nate turns his attention back to Sophie, delicately brushing the hair away from her face again. “Now,” he says with a tired sigh. “Now, we wait.”

-o-

Waiting is an integral part of most cons, and Nate’s always been particularly good at it when he needs to be. He understands the big picture, after all. He knows that sometimes the long game is the only thing that saves the job.

This time, though, he has a sinking feeling it might be the thing that sinks the job -- and the team. Parker and Hardison are faring okay, but five minutes out and Sophie’s not even close to waking up. He’s done what he can to check her wounds, even using his t-shirt to tie off the worst of the head wounds, but it hasn’t done any good. He keeps expecting her to wake up, to chide him about his lost sense of control, to remind him that it’s going to be okay.

It has to be okay.

Nate dips his head, closing his eye against the pounding between his ears. His chest is feeling tight again, making each breath seem like a chore.

It has to be okay.

“Whoa, Nate,” Parker says.

Nate looks up with a start, almost blacking out from the sudden movement. But when his vision clears, he sees that Parker is bent over Eliot.

And Eliot has his eyes open, looking back at her.

For a second, this is the best news Nate’s had in a long time.

But then Eliot’s face contorts. “What--” he starts, but the syllable is weak and thick with a southern accent.

Nate moves toward them, coming alongside Parker into Eliot’s line of vision. “Car accident,” he says sympathetically. “We never saw it coming.”

Eliot’s gaze moves sluggishly to the side, and Nate can see the wheels turning in his head. His comprehension is a bit slower than normal, but it’s clear he understands. When he looks back at Nate, there’s a trace of fear in his eyes. “The team?” he asks, voice barely audible.

“Parker and Hardison, they’re right here, they’re fine,” Nate assures him.

“Your definition of fine leaves something to be desired,” Hardison objects.

Eliot takes a tremulous breath. “Sophie?”

Nate does his best not to hesitate. “She’s here, next to you,” he says, forcing himself to smile. “We’re all here.”

Eliot swallows hard but he doesn’t argue against the obvious omission of the facts. “Good,” he says in a breathy whisper. “That’s good.”

The cling to things like that, taking the almost truths and building them up until they stand on their own. That’s the problem with lying for a living: you start to forget that not everything you say can be real.

You start to forget that some problems can’t be circumvented.

Some problems just are.

Eliot’s breathing stutters, and his face scrunches up again. He squeezes his eyes shut, chest heaving as he starts to wheeze. For a horrible second, Nate thinks Eliot’s going to pass out again.

When Eliot opens his eyes, Nate wishes he had.

Eliot’s eyes are terrified, and he as he takes another railing breath, he starts to stutter. Nate edges Parker out of the way, reaching down to take Eliot’s hand in his own. “It’s okay,” he says. “It’s okay.”

But Eliot shakes his head, a small movement that looks exhausting. He’s struggling now -- to breathe, to stay conscious, to everything -- but his fingers lock around Nate’s like a vice.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” Nate soothes stupidly -- blindly.

Eliot shakes his head again, this time with a tear leaking out from the corner of his eye. “I can’t -- I can’t--”

Nate squeezes his fingers a little tighter. “You don’t have to.”

“No, I can’t,” Eliot wheezes. “I can’t -- I can’t feel my legs.”

Nate’s stomach turns to ice, and his skin breaks out with goosebumps. “The trauma--”

Eliot is almost panicking now, the rising fear overpowering his normally flawless sense of control. “I can’t feel anything,” he says again, gripping Nate’s hand so hard that he thinks his fingers might break. “It’s all gone, Nate. It’s all gone.

Numbly, Nate shushes him. “It’s okay,” he says. “It’s going to be okay.”

But Hardison is watching them with wide eyes and an open mouth. Parker has turned away, shoulders stiff as she visibly does her best not to sob. Sophie doesn’t move a damn muscle, and Eliot is crying on the ground.

“It’s all going to be okay,” he says again, hoping, wishing, wanting it to be true.

But this is a problem, a problem Nate can’t fix. You can’t con your way around a physical injury, and you can’t run a job on a broken body. Nate can’t fix Hardison’s wrist and he can’t fix Sophie’s head and he can’t fix Eliot’s legs. He can’t even stop Parker from crying.

Nate can’t do anything.

And that realization is the worst impact yet.

-o-

Still, some things never change.

See, Nate -- he accounts for everything.

When the ambulance arrives with the police in tow, he explains everything. He talks about the other driving coming out of nowhere, and he tells them all about the family outing that’s been cut short. He instructs them, in no uncertain terms, that Parker is going to insist she’s fine but she needs to be looked at anyway. He tells them that Hardison has a broken wrist, but he’s also been pretty wobbly, so a few scans are probably good. And he makes sure they know about the loss of sensation below Eliot’s waist, and how his breathing is getting worse -- much worse.

He’s especially careful to tell them about Sophie, about how she hasn’t woken up, hasn’t even moved. He instructs them to be mindful of her, to treat her perfect, because she needs to be okay.

He watches while they load each team member up, doubling up the ambulances so Parker rides with Sophie and Hardison sits with Eliot. He stays, giving account of everything as best he can, until he sees the pair of ambulances pull away and start off down the road, sirens wailing.

“Sir, are you sure you’re all right?” one of the police officers asks, giving him a critical look.

Nate swallows a grimace and tries to breath. It only makes things worse. “What? Yeah, sure--”

“You’re bleeding,” the officer says, stepping closer. “Sir--”

Nate looks down, lifting his hand. The blood is everywhere now, spreading down his leg. He stares for a second, unable to exactly make all those pieces fit into place.

“Son of a--” the officer curses. He turns back toward his partner. “We need another ambulance!”

Nate’s vision starts to tunnel, and his ears start to ring.

Nate’s accounted for everything--

But then his knees give out and he’s crumpling to the ground as his consciousness flees.

--well, he thinks fleetingly.

Almost
everything.

-o-

Nate’s been here before.

Spiralling, down and down. Into the darkness where pain is effusive and grief is permanent. There’s no telling why things hurt, or how, just the prevailing sense that it’s just going to get darker.

He needs a drink.

He opens his eyes, hoping for the best. Instead, he’s blinded by a bright light and someone stands close to his head. “Mr. Baker? Can you hear me?”

Nate grimaces, turning his head away. Something beeps loudly, and there’s a prick on his arm.

“Mr. Baker, do you know where you are?”

Hospital, Nate knows without thinking. Nate knows.

He knows how they smell; he knows how they sound. He knows the sound of doctors and nurses, of an IV dripping, of a syringe being loaded.

A defibrillator charging.

Nate shudders, oxygen churning in his lungs painfully. He looks beyond the curtain and catches a glimpse of the patient in the next bed. Not Sam, Nate thinks with relief. Not Sam, not Sam, not Sam.

Sophie, though. Stripped and covered with a sheet. Her neck is stabilized in a collar and her dark hair is a mess. Her eyes are closed and she doesn’t move when a doctor bends over her, rubbing knuckles into her sternum.

Parker is perched at her side, head bandaged as she watches.

“Mr. Baker? You’ve been badly hurt.”

Nate looks back up, squinting around the bright light. The face above him is obscured by a mask, and something warm diffuses into his arm, spreading up toward his shoulder and into his chest.

“Mr. Baker. Mr. Baker.

His body is buzzing now, and no matter how desperate the doctor sounds, Nate doesn’t care. He tips his head again, waiting until the doctor moves and the nurses part and he can see the bed on the other side of him.

He sees Hardison first, clutching his bandaged wrist close to him. The whites of his eyes are stark, and he’s stuck in place.

Staring.

Nate’s eyes flit down, stomach turning.

Not Sam, not Sam, not Sam.

Eliot.

It’s Eliot.

His chest is exposed, and the shaft of metal glints in the flourescent lights. He’s almost gray, the blood too bright where it’s smeared across his exposed skin. A tube is sticking out of a mouth while a nurse with gloved hands pumps air into Eliot’s lungs.

Then, Nate hears it.

A long, steady beep.

Not Sam, not Sam, not Sam.

Not Sam.

Eliot.

The defibrillator whirs.

“Clear!”

Nate closes his eyes and listens to the sound of Eliot’s body collapsing back against the bed.

“Charging again...clear!”

Everything breaks, everything falls.

Everything ends.

“No, Eliot! Eliot, man -- no!

Nate opens his eyes to see someone drag Hardison away while a doctor starts pressing down on Eliot’s chest.

“Try charging again.”

Not Sam, not Sam, not Sam.

Eliot’s body jerks.

Falls.

Nate’s been here before.

“Mr. Baker? Mr. Baker!”

His eyes close again, and he doesn’t try to open him.

Because he’s been here before.

God help him, Nate doesn’t want to be here again.

PART TWO