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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

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

December 10th, 2015 (08:53 pm)
crushed

feeling: crushed

Continued from Part One



-o-

It’s almost funny, really. Because Nate’s accounted for everything.

Except how much he’d care for these people.

Except for how they’d become his family.

Except for how they’d matter to him more than the job, more than revenge, more than life itself.

So yeah, Nate’s accounted for everything.

Except the things that actually matter.

-o-

It comes back to him with a jolt.

He wakes up, painfully aware of every smell, every sound, every pain. He know exactly where he is, and he knows exactly what happened,

Eyes open, he wants to get up but regrets it immediately.

“Yeah, you may not want to do that,” Hardison advises.

Nate glances up, both relieved and annoyed to see the younger man kicked back in a chair by his bed. His wrist is in a cast, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping him from using the cell phone in his hand.

“You have stitches,” Parker tells him from where she’s perched on the windowsill. “A lot of them. I looked.”

Nate’s brow furrows.

“Yeah, I told you that was weird,” Hardison says, shaking his head. “But seriously, man, you do have a lot of stitches. They had to literally tie your insides together with string, and I hacked your chart. They replaced nearly half your blood volume during the surgery.”

Nate’s mouth pulls into a frown. “You’re both okay?”

“I’m fine,” Parker says. “My brain is fine. They checked.”

“Your brain isn’t injured, but I’d hardly say it’s fine,” Hardison says. “I, on the other hand, have a concussion and a broken wrist.”

“Slight concussion,” Parker amends for him.

“There’s nothing slight about a bruise on your brain!” Hardison objects, tapping a finger against his head. “My brain, girl. Anything that messes with that isn’t good.”

“So you’re fine,” Nate concludes.

Hardison rolls his eyes in abject exasperation. “Does no one listen to me?”

“Kind of hard not to,” Parker murmurs.

Before Hardison can jump into what will surely be another colorful rant, Nate clears his throat. It’s a relief to see Parker and Hardison here, no worse for wear, but Nate doesn’t just account for what’s in the room, but what’s missing. “What about Sophie and Eliot?”

He still remembers them, of course. It’s hard to forget. He’ll never forget the lifelessness of Sophie’s form on the table, her neutral face with not a single guise. He can’t erase the sight of Eliot’s body arching off the table or the way his chest compressed when the doctor pressed against it again and again.

Parker looks down.

Hardison hesitates.

Nate’s stomach sinks

Hardison finally manages to swallow. “Sophie, uh, she’s doing okay,” he says. “Stable is what they’re calling it, and that’s a good thing. It really is.”

He’s trying to hard. Hardison doesn’t know how to tell people bad news.

Awkwardly, Hardison clears his throat, sitting up a little straighter. “There was some, uh, swelling,” he says, gesturing to the back of his own head. “But they’ve got it under control now. They’re working on it.”

“They drilled a hole in her head,” Parker blurts.

Hardison casts her a glare. “A shunt,” he corrects on her behalf. He looks at Nate apologetically. “They put in a shunt, and it’s working. They’re talking about taking it out at the end of the week.”

Nate thinks about this as best he can. A shunt; end of the week. Given Hardison’s assessment of Nate’s own injuries, it’s probably been several days since the accident. The loss of time is somewhat disconcerting, but probably not unexpected.

Sophie’s condition is stable, which Hardison is trying to make out to be a good thing.

Which means he’s neglecting the bad news.

“She’s still unconscious,” Nate realizes. “Isn’t she?”

Parker still won’t look at him. Hardison looks more sorry than Nate’s ever seen him. “A coma,” he says. “They’re calling it a coma.”

That’s worse, somehow. Worse than he imagined.

“But they’re optimistic,” Hardison continues.

This time, Parker does look up. “They think she’ll wake up in a few days.”

“She’s showing signs of consciousness,” Hardison says. “If you look at the Glasgow Coma Scale--”

Nate shakes his head, waving a hand through the air. The details won’t help this; the details can’t help. Not with Sophie still unconscious with a hole in her head. She’d probably wax poetic about the inherent drama of it all, but Nate’s a realist.

Sophie’s in a coma. Optimistic or not, that’s not good.

He steadies himself with a deep breath. “And Eliot?”

This time, Parker actually flinches. Hardison nearly shatters.

Nate concludes two things very, very quickly. First, Eliot’s alive. There wouldn’t be any joking at all if he wasn’t, not even for Nate’s sake. Second, Eliot’s doing bad. That’s not a past tense thing, but very present. They’re both sober about Sophie, but rallying hard around the positives. There’s no rallying where Eliot is concerned, not because they don’t care about Eliot.

But because there’s nothing positive to rally around.

The resolve hardens in his chest, overriding the pain and lingering side effects from the heavy sedation. “I need to see him,” he says, pushing himself up.

He doesn’t get very far, and Hardison is already on his feet, pushing Nate back down. “What? Nate, you’re--”

Three days post op or not, Nate’s determined on this one, and he’s a man who is used to getting his way. “I need to see him.”

“Uh, need we remind you that you are in a hospital bed,” Hardison says sternly, though he sounds a little terrified. “There are IVs and wires and stuff.”

Nate draws a breath and tries pushing himself to a sitting position again. Hardison, for all his protestations, doesn’t stop him. “I need to see him,” Nate says again, definitive and sure.

Hardison gives him a wildly skeptical look. “You need to lay down before you blow out your stitches,” he chides. “Remember? The ones holding your insides together?”

By the power of suggestion, Nate looks down. He’s wearing a hospital gown, so he can’t see them, but it occurs to him that the tightness in his torso may be a little more suspicious than he’s allowed himself to consider.

“Uh huh,” Hardison says, almost smug but mostly relieved. “They said you didn’t hit nothing vital, but you had like a six inch gash in your side. That you left untreated for, like, thirty minutes. I saw you when they brought you in. You could have made Dracula nauseous with all that.”

It’s impossible not to consider this, especially since the upright position in his bed is making his head spin. He’s not sure about Dracula, but Nate feels a little woozy himself. As much as he wants to, he’s fairly certain if he stands up, he’ll be lying back down again faster than he can say bad idea.

“Besides,” Parker says. “Your gown doesn’t tie very well in the back. We can see everything.

He’s so absorbed in his thought process that he doesn’t even take a moment to cover his backside in the name of modesty. He’s actually not even sure he can twist his arm that far without crying.

No, Nate can’t do this.

Not by himself.

He looks up at Parker and Hardison. “Okay,” he says.

Hardison looks positively relieved.

Nate nods, unbowed. “I still need to see Eliot and Sophie,” he says.

Hardison is ready to groan.

Nate locks his eyes on them. “But first I need your help.”

-o-

They run it like a job.

That’s what they do, after all. It’s what they’re good at. Nate’s stolen corporations and fashion shows, baseball teams and museums. Hell, he’s even stolen a hospital before.

This time, though, he’s stealing something more than any of that.

He’s stealing the recovery of his team.

He’s stealing back their futures.

He’s stealing a family.

Only this time? He sure as hell doesn’t intend to give it back.

-o-

It starts with Hardison at the nurse’s station. They’ve already got aliases established and developed a rapport with the medical staff. This is both an asset and a detriment. They can leverage those relationships as needed, but it may also make it harder because they have no escape route for the time being.

No, they have to be careful. They have to work the job like a long con, manipulating the system in their favor.

So it starts with Hardison at the nurse’s station.

Normally, he’d send Eliot. Nurses like Eliot, and Eliot certainly likes nurses, but he figures Hardison will do. After all, they don’t need anything big out of this.

They just need a five minute distraction.

“I don’t see why we can’t just trigger a fire alarm,” Parker huffs as she wheels Nate’s wheelchair to the door. “It’s faster.”

“If we wanted to steal something or get out, maybe,” Nate says, taking the time to adjust his robe. “Besides, they’d try to evacuate us right along with everyone else.”

Parker doesn’t seem pleased at the notion, and she peeks out the window on Nate’s door.

“How’s he doing?” Nate asks.

Parker makes a face. “He’s laughing,” she says, narrowing her eyes. “And leaning very close to her.”

Nate does his best not to roll his eyes. Parker’s social graces are strained to say the least, and Nate’s hoping he doesn’t have to explain flirtation to her.

“She seems sort of evil,” Parker announces. “Maybe we should take her out.”

“It’s just a distraction, Parker,” Nate says. “Hardison is just making sure she doesn’t see us slip out.”

She frowns deeply. “So why doesn’t he tell her that he has an ingrown toenail?” she asks. “That’s distracting.”

“You know, we can ask him,” Nate suggests. “After you get me downstairs.”

Parker does not seem thrilled with that, but she sighs. “Fine,” she mutters. “But hold on tight.”

Nate glances up at her with sudden concern. “Wait, we’re just taking the elevator--”

“I know,” she says.

“Like normal people,” Nate says. “I am still recovering from major surgery.”

“I know,” Parker laments.

Nate tilts his head toward her. “You’re not wearing a harness under that, are you?”

This time, she rolls her eyes, opening the door and back out with Nate’s wheelchair. “Just trust me,” she says. “Just another job, right?”

Just another job.

Nate nods, hesitant.

Parker grins at him. “Then like I said,” she says, wheeling him around to the open corridor. “Hold on tight.”

-o-

It goes better than Nate expects.

Parker moves quickly but safely, and Nate has to remind himself that this is a woman who has broken into the most secure facilities in the world. Parker doesn’t beat laser grids by being recklessly. No, Parker beats laser grids by being graceful and very, very careful.

Nate’s not the Hope Diamond, but he’s still treated with extreme care as she weaves them through the floor to avoid all the nurse’s stations. It’s a circuitous route, but it’s a little easier since Hardison has adjusted the duty roster -- not to affect the quality of patient care, of course, but to make sure that the nurses familiar with Nate aren’t anywhere near them when Parker sneaks Nate through.

This subterfuge is necessary because Nate is still not cleared for movement. In fact, Nate has only just recently been to his feet and only for a few seconds before he got light headed and vomited. The nurse had declared this excellent progress, and Nate had then instructed Parker to come up with a route that allowed for wheelchair access.

When they get to the elevator, Parker is actually a little smug. “See? Piece of cake.”

Nate is feeling a little winded despite the fact that he’s been in a chair this whole time. Apparently sitting is still a feat for him after major surgery. “Not bad,” he agrees. “Not bad at all.”

Parker beams.

-o-

The ICU ward is a little more restrictive, but Hardison has already planned for this. They don’t know Nate’s not cleared to be up, and with a little hacking, they think that the best thing for Eliot and Sophie is to have unfettered access to friends and family.

This is a move they’ve considered carefully, but Hardison couldn’t find anything to suggest that Eliot or Sophie would be harmed by having people in the room. There’s minimal risk of infection, and the main reason to limit visitors is a matter of security. Nate can respect that on some level, but Nate’s team doesn’t exactly play by the rules.

No, they pick up where the rules leave off. And the last thing that Sophie and Eliot need are to be alone.

Parker smiles brightly at the staff as she pushes Nate by. “Oh, hey, Paige!” one of the nurses says.

Parker demures in a way that almost makes her seem like a normal human being. “Hey, Kathy. My brother here’s finally awake.”

The nurse -- Kathy -- brightens considerably. “Oh, well, darling, that’s great news,” she says. She nods down at Nate with a maternal gleam. “So good to see such a loving family. I can only imagine how hard this must be for you!”

Nate tries to smile, but finds it hard. For the con, he tells himself. For the con. “It’s a challenge,” he says. “But I’m sure seeing them will help us all.”

Kathy nods in agreement. “I see it all the time,” she says. “The power of a positive influence. Does more than any drug we can prescribe.” She looks to Parker again. “I won’t keep you, darling. Give Sarah and Jacob my best.”

“I will,” Parker says, sweet as can be as she pushes Nate past.

“Oh, and stop by the desk later!” Kathy calls. “It’s Dana’s birthday! We have cake!”

Parker gives a little squeal and a wave.

Nate gives her a curious look.

Parker glares down at him. “What?” she says. “The nurses run this place. If we want to see Eliot and Sophie--”

“I know, I know,” Nate says. “You’re just...so convincing.”

Parker shrugs. “Well,” she admits. “The cake doesn’t hurt.”

-o-

It’s all business as usual until Parker gets to the room. Thanks to Hardison, Jacob and Sarah Jane Baker are in the same room with private care options. It costs extra, Nate’s sure, but if they’re willing to drop millions on jobs for other people, then he’s more than willing to put a little extra down for his team.

Besides, it’s a security issue. There’s no suggestion that this is anything more than an accident, but after so many successful jobs, they have their share of enemies. Nate needs to protect his team any way he can, and a private hospital room means they can control who’s in and who’s out without additional risk of being compromised.

Paranoid? Maybe. But considering what they do, it’s not unreasonable.

It’s all part of the job.

That’s what Nate keeps telling himself until Parker parks his wheelchair between the two beds in the private ICU room.

Sophie’s on one bed, head wrapped and lax fingers crossed over her stomach. Eliot’s on the other bed, a ventilator snaking from his mouth and both of his legs in traction attached at his hips.

Here, there’s nothing to steal. There’s no one to con.

Nate has no plan for this.

For once in his life, he can’t account for any of it.

All he can do is sit there, hoping for the best

-o-

He hopes for the best, this much is certain.

But the thing is, he’s still Nate Ford.

Banged up, post op in a wheelchair -- he’s still Nate Ford.

There’s always something to steal.

There’s always someone to con.

Nate always has a plan.

He just has to think of it.

-o-

“Hardison, I want their charts,” he says when Parker deposits him back in his room. Nate hadn’t wanted to come back, but he’d agreed not for his own sake, but for the sake of the plan.

“Uh, we are their next of kin,” Hardison says, sounding a little perturbed. “Anything you want to know, you just have to ask.”

Nate’s shaking his head. “Doctors will tell us what they think we need to know,” he says. “They’ll tell us a version of the truth, and we don’t want that. I want to know everything about Sophie and Eliot. Their test results, the medications they’re on -- all of it.”

Hardison looks skeptical. “The charts aren’t a problem,” he says. “I’ve already hacked into their system, but they’re charts. Unless you’ve got an MD--”

“We’ll figure it out,” Nate says, because that’s what they do.

That’s what they always do.

And this time is no different.

-o-

“The hospital’s still clean,” Parker reports, just like she always does. She’s taken it upon herself to run a morning sweep. Nate would suggest just checking the floor, but he imagines Parker has a bit more creativity in her methods. “No sign of anyone looking for us.”

Nate nods thoughtfully. He still has to be in his own room for his own checkups, a process which he finds exhausting and frustrating all at once. “Our last mark is in jail, so he’s probably not going to be a problem,” he says. “And with our covers in place--”

“No one would be able to find us,” Parker says.

“Unless they know what they’re looking for,” Nate agrees.

“But, they don’t, right?” Parker says.

“No,” Nate says slowly, mind starting to churn. “But I think we have other things to worry about right now.”

Parker cocks her head.

“Parker,” Nate announces. “I want you to run a different kind of sweep.”

-o-

They take turns with Sophie and Eliot, sometimes in pairs, but Nate has no choice with the cops follow up.

“We’d like to just close this case, sir,” the woman says with a polite smile.

“Yes, of course,” Nate replies, trying to be helpful. He doesn’t feel helpful, but this is part of teh con. “Anything to put this behind us.”

Her pencil is poised on her notepad. “So you were driving--”

“With my wife and siblings, yes,” Nate says.

She nods, jotting a note down. “Where were you going exactly?”

The cover story is pristine, and they all know it by heart now. “Dinner,” he says. “We were celebrating.”

“Celebrating?” she asks.

“The family business,” Nate supplies. “We run a web development company, and we’d just closed a private deal with our biggest client yet. We decided to go get dinner right after work, and then bam -- that truck came out of nowhere.”

It’s almost true, is the funny part. It’s surprisingly benign, as far as Hardison’s cover stories to, and Nate almost feels uncomfortable telling the truth.

“I can’t help thinking it was my fault,” Nate says with a futile shrug. “My company; my hands on the wheel.”

“Mr. Baker, please,” the officer replies, closing her notepad. “We’ve already concluded that the other driver was speeding. He was out of control and texting when he ran that intersection. You couldn’t have seen that coming.”

He smiles weakly. “It’s my job.”

Her smile is sympathetic. “You did your best,” she says. “What more could you expect?”

Not his best.

The best.

He knows the difference.

He defines the difference.

“Anyway,” she says. “I think we have what we need to close this case. I do wish you and your family the best, Mr. Baker. It’s not often we see such commitment to each other. One look, and everyone can see how much you care.”

“Thank you, Officer,” Nate replies numbly.

She nods back on her way out. “Get better, Mr. Baker.”

-o-

Better.

Nate has to get better.

For Sophie, as he fixes her hair for her.

For Eliot, as he sit steadily by his side.

For Hardison, as he plays the sounding board for the latest scheme.

For Parker, as he helps her stay true to the course.

For himself.

For them all.

-o-

The charts are dense and hard to read, but the conclusions are stark enough.

Sophie’s improving, but the doctors expected her to wake up by now. She’s off all the sedatives and on a light version of painkillers. They’re worried that if she doesn’t wake up soon, they’ll have to look at putting in a feeding tube for long term care. It could be any day, though. It should be.

Eliot’s vitals are starting to stabilize more, which is why the doctors are reducing the flow of the ventilator in hopes of getting him off of it in several days. They think he’s going to live, but they don’t know if he’s going to walk again. It’s impossible to say for sure since all the scans are inconclusive. The swelling has to go down before they can see if there’s permanent damage.

That’s what the doctors mean to say, at least, when they smile and promise that everyone is doing as well as can be expected.

As well as can be expected -- it makes Nate wants to scoff.

These doctors must have pretty low expectations.

Clearly, they’ve never met Nate or his team.

-o-

“There’s a pool to see when Sophie will wake up,” Parker says.

Nate makes a face.

“It’s a good thing,” she promises. “Really.”

“I don’t see--”

“They think she’s going to,” Parker continues. “Everyone. They all think she’s going to wake up. I put money down for Friday.”

Nate starts to frown. He’s been slated for physical therapy, which is even more annoying than all the rest.

“What?” Parker asks. “I’ll give the money to Sophie when we win.”

Nate shakes his head with a sigh. “And Eliot?”

Parker’s face falls. “They’re not pleased with Doctor Wait-and-See.”

“Who?” Nate asks.

“Doctor Wait-and-See,” Parker repeats. “He’s the neuro guy assigned to Eliot’s case. Apparently, he barely looks at the scans and has only been in to see Eliot twice since he’s been admitted. He keeps saying that he’ll reassess when the swelling goes down, but by then, it could be too late.”

“Is there another option?” Nate asks.

Parker shrugs. “Not here,” she says. “Apparently their neuro department leaves something to be desired.”

Not here, Nate thinks. Not here.

He knows a thing or two about this stuff; he knows that sometimes the best medical care is the stuff you find yourself. He knows that wait-and-see can be a death sentence.

“Parker, get Hardison,” he says.

“Why?” she asks. “Do you think he wants to make a bet for Sophie?”

Nate ignores her and smiles instead. “No,” he says. “I think it’s time we stole a surgeon.”

-o-

He puts Hardison in charge of recruiting the nation’s best neurosurgeon, bringing him all the way in from Seattle. Parker he has duping the doctor on call into extra training in Texas. The timing is going to work out just right so no patients fall through the cracks. They even make sure that the resident who has been in charge of Sophie’s care takes an active point to coordinate the shifting caseload until it’s in place. If this goes well, the hospital will have a resident with leadership capabilities, an attending with added training and the prestige of a world renowned surgeon serving a temporary position.

Eliot will have the chance to walk again.

And the team?

Will have a chance to get through this in one piece.

-o-

The hardest part is ironically the easiest. Nate’s good with the plotting and the planning, and he’s even doing okay at the physical therapy regimen his doctor has him on. But the part that kills him -- the part that makes him want to bolt more than any of the rest -- is sitting with Sophie and Eliot.

It’s not hard, of course. Perched in his wheelchair between the two beds, it’s not physically demanding or intellectually taxing.

And he tries to be positive. He takes comfort in the growing activity on Sophie’s scans. He feels reassured when she starts to twitch and move from time to time. It’s a good thing, he knows, that Eliot’s been extubated, that he’s breathing on his own. They’re doing better.

But it’s hard.

Because Nate knows that this is a game hospitals plays, that they take you three steps forward and two steps back and that it’s a tenuous give and take of hope and desperation. And he knows the only thing that’s ever beat him is here, right here, and he doesn’t want to lose again.

He holds Sophie’s hand and talks to Eliot, and he doesn’t think of Sam.

This isn’t that.

This isn’t that.

-o-

Sophie wakes up on Friday.

Everyone is, of course, overjoyed. The doctors are beaming, and Hardison is nearly giddy. Parker collects on the betting pool, and the nurses are so happy that they don’t even care.

And Sophie -- well, Sophie’s a natural at this sort of thing. She’s groggy but impeccable, and it takes her no time to realize who she is and what their cover story is. Within an hour of being conscious, she’s already embellished the tale, endearing her to doctors and nurses alike and getting extra servings of lunch and dinner sent to the room, just because she’s exquisite.

Nate watches it all, sits back and wants to smile. He’s wanted this, he’s needed this, he’s been so scared of losing this, and it’s his. It’s here. It’s here and it’s his, and God help him, it’s like coming up for oxygen.

He wants to smile. He wants to celebrate and joke and laugh.

But somehow it’s all he can do not to cry.

-o-

It’s nearly night when he has a moment alone with Sophie. He’s close to being discharged himself, and he’s sent Parker and Hardison out, just for a little bit. It’s as much for them as it is for him.

But it is for him, because he needs a moment. He probably needs more than a moment, but he’ll take this. He’ll take it.

In the dim light of Sophie’s room, Eliot’s still unconscious. The doctor are talking about moving Sophie out of the ICU tomorrow, so this is the last night where Nate can keep them all close, close enough to measure every breath, count every heartbeat.

And he does, of course. He breathes in tandem with Eliot and taps his toes to the cadence of Sophie’s heart monitor. Control in chaos; the patterns in disarray.

“You’re thinking too hard,” Sophie says, voice still a little rough in the darkness.

Nate doesn’t flinch, and he looks at her. “Don’t tell me it’s keeping you up.”

Sophie is propped up high on the pillows. Somehow, after nearly a week in a coma, she still looks immaculate. “It might be, yes,” she says, eyes twinkling just a little. “But then again, I’ve also been asleep for nearly awake so maybe I’m just not tired.”

“You still need to rest,” Nate says.

She doesn’t buy it. “You don’t get to lecture me about that,” she says. “Not when you have been sitting in this room while recovering from major surgery yourself.”

Nate doesn’t bother with being chagrined. “Sitting and thinking,” he says. “It’s not exactly taxing.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” she tells him.

He already knows that.

They both do.

He’s never been able to hide anything from her, even when he wants to.

He sighs, glancing toward Eliot for a moment. “You scared me,” he says, then he looks back to Sophie. “You all did.”

She nods. “You lost control,” she tells him. “Just for a moment. When that truck hit us, your hands were on the wheel, but there was nothing you could do. You’ll recover from the physical injuries, but you can’t tell me the other ones are healing quite so easily.”

Nate taps his fingers on his chair. “I thought you didn’t remember the accident.”

She looks disappointed. “You know I don’t have to.”

“You can’t treat me like a mark,” he says.

“And you can treat this like a job,” she says. “Because it’s not a job. Is it?”

“No,” Nate agrees, a tightness in his chest he can’t explain. “It’s more than that.”

It’s teamwork; it’s partnership. It’s friendship.

It’s family.

Sophie smiles faintly. “Someday we might not all walk away,” she says. Her eyes go to Eliot. “We still might not this time.”

Nate shakes his head. “I can’t believe that.”

“You can’t bend fate to your will,” she reminds him.

“Maybe not,” Nate says. “But I can try.”

This time, she smiles wider. “I just worry that if you can’t bend it, you’ll break,” she says. “All of us, we can break, Nate. Life is the greatest grift of all, tricking us into believing we have any control over any of it.”

“Then why do it?” Nate asks.

“Ah,” she says, letting out a deep breath. “I’ll let you think on that while I get some sleep, yeah?”

He nods to himself while Sophie closes her eyes. For a moment, he lets the silence fill him, let’s it surround him. He matches his breathing to Eliot’s and taps his toes to Sophie’s heart monitor.

“Good night, Sophie,” he murmurs, but she’s already asleep.

And Nate’s alone again.

-o-

The job’s not over.

No matter what Sophie says, that’s how Nate has to look at it. It helps keep things together. It helps keep him together.

That’s why Eliot’s still fighting, Nate figures. That’s what Eliot does, after all. He takes the hits, and he’s always the last one out when it comes down to it.

Even when he disagrees, even when he hates it -- Eliot does his job, just like he’s doing it now.

Lying on the hospital bed, heavily sedated and in traction, Eliot’s doing what may be his most important job yet.

That’s more than reason enough, as far as Nate’s concerned, for the rest of them to keep doing theirs.

-o-

Parker, you see, she’s a thief.

She steals things, sneaking in and out of tight spaces. She steals badges and access cards, giving them the ability to control the surgery board and allocate the best staff possible to Eliot’s ongoing care and Sophie’s recovery. When the new doctor arrives, she steals his itinerary, making sure that he has no choice but to visit Eliot first and see the scant notes on the chart that tell him that there’s a lot more to do here.

Hardison, he’s a hacker, and a damn good one at that. Not only does he manipulate the electronic system at the hospital to optimize their schedules and maintain total access to their charts, but he also works his magic to make sure that their cover is unbreachable. It’s one less thing to worry about in a case that has nothing but worries. He even hacks access to the cameras in the operating rooms and scanners, so they can see Eliot at all times, even when he’s being taken for tests.

As for Sophie, she’s a grifter, and the best one Nate’s ever seen. She immediately gains the trust of the entire medical staff, which garners them extra privileges and perks. Somehow, she even meets the board director, who is so taken with Sarah Jane Baker’s story that he arranges for a private medical suite for all of them, complete with extra beds and chairs and desk. Nate’s not sure how, but she manages to get them a private chef, too, so they never have to leave.

Eliot, well, he’s a hitter. He takes the hits and keeps getting up. No matter how many, no matter how hard. Eliot never stays down. Not when his team needs him.

They need him now, Nate thinks as they watch the security feed to the operating room where Eliot’s undergoing his second surgery. It was a team effort to get him bumped to the front of the list, behind any emergent cases naturally, and it wasn’t exactly easy to convince the best surgeon in the country to tackle this case.

But it’s worth it.

At this point, they go together.

Or they don’t go at all.

-o-

When the doctor brings Eliot back, he’s smiling.

“It went well,” he announces as Eliot is settled back into his bed. “I was able to fully visualize the spinal column, and there was no direct damage. We were able to reduce the swelling to restore blood flow to the nerves, which should prevent any further damage.”

Nate nods anxiously, trying not to watch as the nurses busy themselves with covering Eliot up with a blanket and arranging his hair and arms. “Further damage?”

“He’s probably going to experience some ongoing numbness and tingling when he wakes up,” the doctor warns. “But we tested the nerves before we closed, and all the pathways are intact.”

“So he’ll be able to walk again?” Nate asks.

“The ultimate outcome is hard to predict,” the doctor admits. “Some patients only regain partial control, and he’ll need a fairly aggressive therapy schedule.”

The doctor is playing the odds; that’s his job.

Nate’s job, though, is to be the mastermind. To see all the possibilities and know how to hone in on the right one, the best one, the only one.

The doctor is giving Eliot a chance.

Nate and his team, though, will give Eliot the reality.

They will walk out of here together, Nate decides, right then and there.

“Don’t worry,” Nate says, smiling a little. “I think we can handle it.”

-o-

Of course, it’s not just Eliot, either. The doctor gives it 24 hours before he wakes up, coming off the sedatives from the previous week and the anesthesia from surgery.

Nate has 24 hours before he has to deal with Eliot.

24 hours to realize the rest of his team needs him just as much.

Maybe more.

-o-

Hardison is the easiest, because he brings it up first. He finds Nate still awake at 2 in the morning, and he sits down, manhandling his laptop with his good hand.

“Hope you don’t mind,” Hardison says, clicking a few keys. “I wanted to sit with him.”

Nate inclines his head slightly, but doesn’t say anything. The girls are asleep in the other room, and Nate’s been sitting in silence the last few hours, watching Eliot breathe.

“Not that he’d like that,” Hardison says. “He’d probably get all up in my business about bedside vigils.”

The image is pretty easy to picture. Nate chuckles faintly. “A bit of advice,” he says. “When you tell him, don’t call it a bedside vigil.”

Hardison’s mouth widens into a grin. “It’d serve him right, keeping us holed up like this,” he says. Then, his smile fades. “Sort of weird, though.”

Nate doesn’t say anything.

“Seeing him like that,” Hardison continues, more soberly. “Doesn’t seem right, does it?”

“He takes the hits,” Nate says, as if it’s that simple. “Sometimes he’s going to go down for the count.”

As if it’s nothing.

Hardison swallows hard. “That doesn’t freak you out, then?” he asks, glancing at Nate, almost nervous. “That in the end, no matter what things we can do, there’s still so much we can’t. I mean, all that we’ve done to get the best help possible, and we’re still sitting on a wait and see.

“A much better wait and see,” Nate reminds him.

“But it’s still the same thing,” Hardison says. “After everything, we still can’t guarantee the outcome.”

Nate sighs, more than a little weary. “That’s how it always is,” he says. “We just don’t know it most of the time.”

Hardison shakes his head. “Nah, man,” he says. “We plan. We work it. We have all the background and all the intel. We have contingencies.”

“Because we know we can’t control everything,” Nate says. “That’s one of the hardest things about running a crew. Knowing that someday, somewhere, it’s just not going to be enough.”

Hardison’s eyes are wide in the dimness. “How do you do it, then?” he asks, eyes flicking to where Eliot is resting. “How do you take on clients and plan jobs knowing that someday one of them is going to blow up in your face?”

Nate shrugs, smiling helplessly. “You just keep telling yourself that today is not that day.”

Hardison is still studying Eliot. “And this time?” he asks, voice low and quiet.

Nate smiles with a confidence born of desperation. The promise of a last resort. “This time?” he asks as he nods to Eliot. “Today is definitely not that day.”

It’s not clear if Hardison actually believes him, but then it’s not clear if Nate believes himself. But they believe because they have to.

Because no other option worth believing.

Not today.

Probably not ever.

-o-

Hardison falls asleep, which is about the time that Parker wakes up. She’s found a box of cereal, somehow, and she sits cross legged in the chair, staring at Eliot thoughtfully.

“I’ve never seen him like this,” she says.

Nate’s not sure what kind of response she’s looking for.

“I mean, I’ve seen him like this, I guess,” he says. “I once broke into his apartment to watch him sleep, and but it was kind of boring--”

“Parker--”

“I’ve never seen him like this,” Parker clarifies. “Like…”

“Vulnerable,” Nate supplies.

Parker draws her brows together. “He just seems invincible,” she says. “You know?”

Nate nods. “I know.”

“But he’s…”

Nate looks from Parker to Eliot, sighing. “Human. He’s human.”

Parker slumps somewhat. “Human,” she says, almost disdainfully. “That’s even worse.”

With that, Nate can only agree. “Yeah,” he says. “But that’s what makes it better.”


Parker cocks her head. “How is that better?”

“Well, I mean, we’ve all worked with people,” he says. “We’ve used people, bought people, partnered with people out of necessity. But friendship -- family -- that’s what makes us human. That’s the most important possession, the only one you can’t steal.”

Parker’s face is fraught, drawn more intense than he’s seen it maybe ever. “Can’t steal it,” she murmurs. “Can’t buy it, can’t con it.”

“Priceless,” Nate muses in agreement.

Parker shift, clearly uncomfortable. “It makes me vulnerable, too, doesn’t it?”

“No,” Nate says, rubbing a hand over his face. “It makes you as human as the rest of us.”

-o-

And Sophie.

She waits until noon, when Eliot is just starting to stir. Then, she convinces Parker and Hardison to step out for lunch with the logic that when Eliot wakes up, they’re all going to be cooped up there for a while.

It almost seems altruistic, but this is Sophie.

She knows how to work every situation to her favor.

It makes Nate vaguely nervous. He’s not sure whether or not he needs to comfort Sophie or run like hell.

Whatever the case, he really wishes he had a drink. He hasn’t had one in over a week, and that’s been okay with the drugs and all, but he’s pretty sure he’s about to need it.

They sit for a while, saying nothing, and Nate half wishes it could stay like that. It could, technically, but Nate’s not going to shy away from this.

Not this time.

He still remembers what it was like to see Sophie still and silent in that van.

He can’t ignore that now.

“So,” Nate says. “How’s the head?”

She reaches up, fiddling with her hair. “I’m still annoyed how much they shaved,” she says. “You know how limiting this is for hairstyles. I will have to limit myself in the field because of this.”

“Well, if it’s any consolation, we’re probably not going to be in the field for a while,” Nate says, eyes lingering on Eliot.

“For a while?” Sophie asks.

When Nate looks back at her, her eyebrows are arched at him. “Yeah,” he says. “We’ll need to, you know. Recover.”

“Recover,” Sophie repeats slowly.

Nate swallows uncomfortably. “Until we all get back on our feet,” he says. “All of us.”

“And what if we don’t?” she asks, not even missing a beat. “Get back on our feet.”

That’s it, the turn she’s been waiting for. It’s impossible to know with someone like Sophie, if she knows how to take advantage of any conversation or if she knows how to direct them from the start. He always sort of feels like he’s walking into a trap when he’s talking to her like this, and for the life of him, he can never seem to avoid it.

She’s just that good, and worse, she knows him.

He fidgets, wetting his lips. “We will,” he says. “I know we will.”

She tips her head forward knowingly. “This isn’t about you, Nate,” she reminds him.

“I never said--”

“Listen to yourself,” she says. “Offering absolutes and proclamations when you’ve still got stitches yourself.”

Nate clears his throat, absently scratching at the bandages. “The team--”

“No,” she says. “It’s not even about the team. I mean, it can’t be.”

“Then what is it about, Sophie?” he asks.

She lets out an incredulous breath. “It’s about Eliot,” she says. “You can sit here and tell Hardison and Parker that everything’s okay, and you can console me that my hair is going to grow back, but what about the things you don’t know? What if Eliot wakes up and he doesn’t walk again? What if he isn’t as fast or as strong? That’s not just going to take this team apart, but it’s going to destroy Eliot. Are you even thinking about that possibility? Not about how we can’t do the job without a hitter, but about how Hardison will feel when he can’t make jokes at Eliot’s expense? About how Parker will feel when she’s finally let someone close to her just to see him taken down? And Eliot? What will you tell him if he loses his ability to take care of himself, to take care of us? Because that will require a whole lot more than platitudes.”

Nate works his jaw, forcing his breathing to stay even. “It’s going to work. The doctor--”

“Did his best, just like us,” she says. “But what are you going to do if it isn’t enough? Are you going to drown yourself in a drink? Are you still going to be here, the strong, steady presence they all need?”

“It has to work,” Nate says, unable to stop his voice from trembling, just a little.

For a second, Sophie stares at him, slowly shaking her head. “You really don’t have any contingencies, do you?”

“Not for this,” he says. “But we’ll figure it out. We always do.”

She sits back, somewhat sullen. “You make it sound so easy.”

Nate looks hard at Eliot, remembering the long week that’s behind him. In that, he accounts for everything. Everything he almost lost; everything he thought would slip through his fingers. He accounts for the emotions he didn’t plan on and the fears he’s never let himself acknowledge. He accounts for the needs he didn’t know he had and the family he never intended to make.

“No,” he says. “This is the hardest thing of all.”

Her expression softens and she presses her lips together. She wants Nate to understand; she wants him to accept his own fallibility. Nate knows this, and he knows she means well. She cares about him, even against her better judgement. She cares about him, even when he doesn’t deserve it. Because if Nate wants to play God, then she’ll be his devil’s advocate.

When he wants to be the devil, she’s the angel on his shoulder.

She knows what he needs, even when he really doesn’t want it.

Nate almost lost that, almost lost her.

With Sophie, it’s always a mutuality. Comforting her is a matter of confronting himself. That’s why she’s the best.

That’s why she’s the hardest.

“Well, I hope it works, then,” she says finally, and the pretenses are gone. Her eyes lock on Nate’s. “For all our sakes.”

-o-

He can comfort Hardison. He can provide emotional grounding for Parker. He can confess his weakness for Sophie. And he’ll be here for Eliot, no matter what happens when he wakes up.

That’s all Nate needs, he realizes.

For them to be okay.

For them to be whole.

For them to be a team.

Them.

That’s all he needs.

-o-

The thing is, they all follow his lead. Eliot, he’ll fight and grumble, but he follows orders. He never lets Nate down.

Never.

So when he wakes up in the early afternoon, just shy of the 24 hour mark, it’s really not a surprise.

No, it’s like seeing all the pieces of the puzzle falling into place.

And for the first time all week, Nate might just believe what he says.

Might.

Nate comes close to Eliot’s side while Hardison gets a doctor and Parker get a nurse. Sophie’s still in her bed next to them, watching anxiously as Nate positions himself close to Eliot and looks the other man in the eyes.

Eliot is weak -- a week of sedation will do that to anyone, hitter or not -- and he’s a little disoriented. But when his eyes meet Nate’s, there’s a familiar understanding Nate remembers.

Still, Eliot’s breathing sound strained, and he struggles to wet his lips. His eyebrows are drawn together in concentration. It could be the lingering pain or the heavy drugs he’s still on, but he’s trying hard to focus himself, to ground himself to this moment.

Nate finds himself smiling. “Hey, Eliot.”

It makes Eliot try harder, and Nate almost feels guilty.

But not quite.

“You’ve been out of it for awhile,” Nate explains.

This only serves to deepen the consternation on Eliot’s face. When he manages to speak, his voice is thin and raspy, almost inaudible, but Nate understands him perfectly. “The team?”

It’s so like Eliot, so perfectly like Eliot that Nate almost feels tears in his eyes. His smile widens a little further. “You need to do something first.”

Eliot shakes his head, a small movement that seems more taxing than it should be. “The team -- are they -- okay?”

Nate nods his understanding, but he won’t relent on this. At this point, it’s not clear if Eliot remembers what happens, but that probably doesn’t matter. No matter the mission, they all have the same priority. There’s only one outcome that actually matters, even if Nate forgets it sometimes. “Just -- move your legs, okay?” Nate says intently.

This isn’t the answer that Eliot wants, and his protests are written all over his face. It’s taking most of his energy not to protest in fact, and Eliot doesn’t have a lot to spare right now. For maybe the first time in all of this, Nate’s aware of just how much he’s asking.

At least this time, he’s pretty sure it’s worth it.

“Come on,” Nate cajoles. “Even a toe.”

Eliot’s given more than he should have to, more than he probably ever thought he would -- hell, they all have. They’ve given him parts of themselves they didn’t know they had, parts of themselves Nate hardly knows what to do with. Hardison and Parker and Eliot and Sophie -- they’ve followed him where he never thought he’d go and they’re still here.

They’re still here.

Eliot’s focus shifts, and his face pales even more. His concentration narrows, and Nate looks down instinctively at Eliot’s feet beneath the sheet. Across the room, Sophie sits forward anxiously.

Nate holds a breath, not daring to move.

A long, torturous moment passes, and Nate starts to fear the worst. He feels the dread fill in the pit of his stomach, and he thinks maybe this is it. Maybe this is the one he doesn’t win. Maybe this is the time they don’t walk out together.

Maybe.

Then, an imperceptible movement.

At first, Nate thinks he’s imagined it.

But then, Eliot’s right toe wiggles.

Followed by his left foot.

Both feet shift, not very much, but enough.

He looks back to Eliot, whose face is pinched and strained. He’s breathing heavier now, the exertion drawn between his eyes. He looks at Nate, the desperation only more plain with his exhaustion. “The team,” he haltingly demands. “Are they okay?”

Nate laughs so hard that he half expects he’s crying. “They’re okay, Eliot,” he says, resting a hand on the other man’s forearm. In a life of lies and omissions, this is the honest to God, absolute truth. “We’re all okay.”

-o-

The job isn’t over yet.

In fact, in a lot of ways, it just gets harder. With everyone awake and conscious, there’s more people cooped up in a small space. Worse, Sophie takes her therapy dramatically, relaying her dismay at the hard work with utter languish. She makes it up to herself by watching soap operas on TV.

Lots and lots of soap operas.

This, of course, transfixes Hardison, who knows every storyline to every soap opera in the last fifty years within a week -- the Internet, baby, it has everything -- and after Parker criticizes the plotlines, she starts to emulate the characters with alarming alacrity.

Eliot still has the hardest job, and although the doctor wants him to take it easy, he’s on his feet constantly, trying to regain control of his footing. He makes leaps and bounds in his therapy -- faster than Sophie -- but it leaves him spent.

And grumpy.

Eliot complains about everything, from the soap operas to the sheets to the food. He bitches and moans with a terrifying tenacity. This would be almost more than Nate can bear except Eliot’s making excellent progress.

More than that, Nate remembers where they started.

Not just in a upturned van.

But five strangers, set on working alone.

They came together.

They’ll leave together.

That’s Nate’s job.

His part, it’s not easy, and he’s not so vain as to think it’s the most important, per se. Yes, he’s the mastermind. Yes, without him, they’d scatter and fall apart. He’s made them better.

But they’ve made him who he is. It’s not just that he’s better, it’s that they’ve propped up his entire identity. He’s nothing without them.

So Nate, he accounts for everything.

He digs up new leads for Hardison to start vetting. He has Parker case out a few potential targets. He tasks Sophie with getting them early release papers and in-home follow ups. And he’s there for Eliot, who collapses into bed so tired that he’s pissed off, and he takes the brunt of that anger and lets it ride, because he knows Eliot wants to hit something, and this is the next best thing.

Nate relieves the tension, he provides the distraction. He listens when he needs to and talks when it’s necessary. He’s funny, and he’s tough. He’s gentle, and he’s insistent. He handles the doctors and the nurses and the insurance. He lines up their food and their transportation. He manages their therapy and makes sure everyone gets their checkups as needed. He’s studied every x-ray of Hardison’s hand and every scan of Sophie’s head. He’s memorized the number of steps Eliot has taken in therapy, and he knows every place Parker likes to hide on the hospital grounds.

He knows when they’re ready to leave.

And he knows they’ll leave together this time.

After all, Nate might not be about to account for everything.

But for this team?

He’d sure as hell like to try.