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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Leverage fic: The Quitting Job (4/5)

November 19th, 2016 (07:28 pm)
moody

feeling: moody

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE





-o-


It’s 3:26 AM when the call comes, and Nate knows the second he sees Parker’s number on the caller ID.


This isn’t the call he’s been hoping for.


It’s the one he’s been waiting for nonetheless.


-o-


Parker’s quiet and strained, so the details are still hazy, but Nate has enough to put together a pretty good picture of what happened.


A job turned sideways, one armed thug too many and a gunshot wound to the chest. He’s alive, but barely so, and they don’t know what’s going to happen.


“We’re on our way,” Nate says, getting out of bed and turning the light on. Sophie sits up, bleary-eyed next to him. He looks at her, jaw rigid as he nods. “We’re both on our way.”


-o-


“He’s going to be okay,” Sophie says when they settle into cruising altitude. Nate bought two first class tickets on the first plane out, and as far as he’s concerned, even that is taking too long. Sophie nods resolutely. “He’s going to be okay.”


Nate doesn’t say anything, tongue like lead as he stares ahead of him.


“He’s Eliot, he’s always okay,” she continues, almost under her breath. “He’s Eliot.”


Nate doesn’t tell her that he suspects that’s the problem. Eliot’s not just a man who knows how to survive and kill. He’s a man who knows what’s worth dying for. Nate gave him all the reasons in the world to die for the best cause, but not enough reasons to live.


Sophie closes her eyes, taking a few deep breaths. She reaches over, taking his hand in hers. “This isn’t how it ends, Nate,” she says, eyes still closed as she shakes her head. “I know it’s not. Eliot’s not a quitter.”


Nate can’t bring himself to speak, can’t find the words. There was a time Sophie would have been right, but Nate’s set a dangerous precedent of knowing when to walk away, when to quit. The chase always ends, and sometimes it’s nice to pick your own terms.


But sometimes, the chase ends, when you have no say in the matter.


And when you are absolutely, completely not ready at all.


-o-


It’s Hardison who’s a mess, crying and rambling so fast that they can hardly understand him.


“There was so much blood, man, and he started shaking. Then he was going blue and he wasn’t breathing,” he says haltingly, voice hitching unevenly. “And the blood--”


Sophie takes him by the hands and pulls him close, rubbing slow circles on his back while he tries to get his breathing back under control.


For his part, Nate zeroes in on Parker, who’s sitting pale-faced on one of the chairs in the waiting room. There’s blood on her shirt, on her pants, and it’s stained her hands. When Nate sits next to her, she can’t bring herself to look him in the eyes.


“I thought I had it all accounted for,” she says, voice barely audible. She works her jaw. “We’d done the same con a dozen times. But this time…”


He doesn’t let himself flinch, not when he knows exactly what she’s talking about. One might be inclined to think he favored Parker by giving her his job. He knows the exact opposite is true. The burden of knowing everything is a weight most people wouldn’t take on in a hundred years.


She shakes her head, a tear dripping from the end of her nose. “I told him to get out, to just quit, that the con was blown,” she continues, voice almost choking off entirely for a moment.


Nate doesn’t say anything, holds himself steady until she looks up at him.


Her eyes are rimmed with red, and the emotions are barely kept at bay. Everything wavers in her expression as she shakes her head. “He didn’t quit,” she says. “They shot him in the damn chest, and he lost almost half his blood supply and his heart stopped beating, but he didn’t let himself quit. Why would he do that, Nate? Why?”


It’s a fair question, it’s maybe a necessary question. It’s a question that’s going to haunt all of them at some point or another.


And Nate, he can posit a hundred different answers, but none of them do it justice.


“Quitting’s something we have to learn,” he tells her finally. “Eliot’s more stubborn than most.”


“I know that,” she says. “I accounted for that, I did. And I was trying, you know? To make him remember that it wasn’t just the job. The brewpub and dates and he was never alone, Nate. I made sure he was never alone. Because I would have quit this job -- I would have quit everything -- if it would have saved him.”


“Parker, Parker,” he says. “You can’t blame yourself for Eliot’s choice.”


“This never happened while you were in charge,” she confesses, tears welling in her eyes.


“Maybe,” he says. “But I quit, remember? I took the easy way out.”


Parker drops her gaze back down with a heavy exhale. “Nothing is easy about this,” she says, wiping her nose. Nate sees red glisten on her diamond wedding ring.


“No,” Nate agrees, still planted in the seat next to her. “It’s not.”


He’s quit before.


Tonight, here, he’s not quitting now.


-o-


Nate’s been the honest man again, but the con comes back to him seamlessly. In some ways, it’s not necessary -- he has no qualms being here -- but Eliot’s been admitted under one of Hardison’s aliases, and Parker is listed as his primary next of kin -- a baby sister. Accordingly, Nate’s cover is the older brother, with Hardison and Sophie as obvious significant others.


It’s not an act, though, when Nate corners the doctor and demands as much explanation as he’s willing to give. This isn’t just Nate the control freak; this is Nate the worried relative. He has plenty of practice, after Sam.


The doctor is helpful, at least, but the litany of things that have gone wrong makes Nate’s honest stomach churn. Blood loss, hypovolemic shock, collapsed lung, extensive internal damage. He took a second round to his leg, which fractured the bone and cut through the muscles. During surgery, Eliot crashed twice, and they’re worried that his lungs are being flooded by the fluids being pumped into Eliot’s body to keep him alive. And none of that even gets started on the implications of brain damage, given the amount of time Eliot’s heart wasn’t beating.


“I’m very sorry,” the doctor tells him, and it sounds like she means it. “He’s a fighter, though. Isn’t he?”


Nate smiles at her grimly. “You have no idea.”


-o-


None of this has been easy, but when they’re finally escorted into Eliot’s ICU room, the whole facade threatens to fall apart. Not the con -- no, Hardison’s aliases are airtight -- but the calm and collected mastermind persona just about collapses in on itself in the face of reality.


Next to him, Sophie gasps, putting a hand to her mouth. Hardison can barely bring himself to step inside, and Parker is ramrod straight at Nate’s side. For a moment, no one dares to move, taking in the graphic tableau in front of them.


It hardly looks like Eliot, half-buried under the medical equipment. Tubes and wires crisscross, snaking back to the bank of machines and monitors behind the bed. Eliot’s legs and torso have been hastily covered with a sheet, but it doesn’t do much to obscure the bulky bandages on his chest or the cast on his leg. Eliot’s skin is pale and covered with cuts and bruises, and the tube down his throat does little to offset the mottled discoloration on his cheek or his swollen nose. His hair is still matted with blood, hanging stiff while Eliot is positioned on his back.


His face is impassive underneath it all, and his lax limbs leave him prone, a position that Nate knows would bother Eliot if he were conscious. He’s not, though, and that’s probably the problem.


This has always been the risk, of course, especially where Eliot is concerned. He hasn’t made his living or established his reputation by avoiding danger. And the jobs they take on, the millionaires they take down -- it’s not safe, no matter how many ways they try to cushion it for themselves. Nate’s been to prison; he knows that’s not the worst thing that can happen.


Standing there, watching machines keep Eliot alive, he knows this isn’t either, not quite.


It’s hard as hell to stand there, to watch. Nate still remembers watching Sam die, seeing his small, frail body waste away into nothing. He hasn’t had a flashback this strong in years, and when all his instincts are to run, to quit, he plants his feet a little more firmly into the ground.


Hardison is breathing heavy, and Sophie is trembling. Parker hasn’t moved, and Nate knows it’s up to him. He started this.


He’ll finish it.


Stepping forward, he crosses the floor to Eliot’s side. Chest tight, he picks up Eliot’s hand curling the lax fingers in his own.


He holds them for a moment before pulling a chair up closer and sitting down. Parker follows him, coming around to Eliot’s other side. Sophie comes in next, hand on Nate’s arm while Hardison drapes an arm over Parker’s shoulder.


They all started on different paths.


Nate trusts they’ll end on one together.


-o-


There’s no one to con, but somehow it’s still the hardest job yet. Nate takes Hardison home and feeds Lev before stocking up Hardison’s fridge with orange soda. When Hardison’s cleaned and dressed, Nate sits with him and lets him ramble, nodding sincerely at all the right places. Hardison, he just wants to be heard and acknowledged. Nate can do that.


Parker’s a little harder because he knows she’s grappling with emotions she doesn’t know quite how to deal with. She’s never had to this kind of loss, not since her childhood, and Nate knows how well that didn’t go. Honestly, he’s inclined to let Sophie handle the emotions -- Parker responds to her in that way -- and he’s the one who listens as she explains her plan in excruciating detail. He’s the one that tells her, at every caveat, that she did it better than he could have. He asks her questions just so she knows she has the answers.


He takes Sophie out for drinks later, buys her the most expensive glass of wine he can find, and watches her drink it. When he takes her back to the hotel, he pulls her into bed and draws her close until their skin is pressed together and he can hear the thump of her heart against his own chest. He holds her like that until her breathing catches and she finally starts to cry. A real cry, not the one she uses for the grift. The kind where her breath hitches and her nose starts to run. It’s strange, somehow, how she’s never been more beautiful.


-o-


Most of the time, though, he sits with Eliot.


In some ways, this is the easiest. Eliot doesn’t need him to run errands or do chores. Eliot doesn’t ramble on in search of reassurance, and he sure as hell isn’t looking for comfort. No, Eliot is motionless and quiet, and he doesn’t care if Nate’s quiet, noisy or there at all.


It affords Nate plenty of time to think, which is good and bad. It’s impossible not to consider how things might be different if he and Sophie had never left, if they had still been a quintet instead of a trio. This thought is never a question of capability but mostly capacity. With five people in play, there are just more safety nets.


That’s a doubter’s fantasy, though, and Nate knows it. This, in any variation, has been the inevitable outcome of this journey, and Nate bears responsibility in putting them all here. He took four professionals and made them a unit, stronger as a whole and weaker as members. That’s the way it has to be, when you give criminals a chance at redemption. Once they lose the ability to turn their moral code off, things change.


For Eliot more than the rest.


Eliot’s always been so self sufficient, always been so keen to keep people at a distance that Nate’s let him do it. The others, in the end, wanted to be caught, but Eliot’s still trying to evade him at the most fundamental level.


And that -- that’s what Eliot needs. This isn’t about redemption; this isn’t about penance. This isn’t just about finding a place on a team and learning to let himself get attached to people and places. No, Eliot needs someone to work as hard to save his life as he’s worked to save theirs. He needs someone who will lay down, lay out, lay in to see him through.


Eliot needs to let himself be caught, once and for all.


That’s the only way this changes. That’s the only way Eliot changes.


Nate’s gotten pretty far. He’s broken down Eliot’s walls, and he’s changed all his defense mechanisms. He’s taken a hitter and turned him into a fiercely loyal man. He’s turned a loner into a member of a team, and he’s transformed a dangerous man into a giving soul.


But he hasn’t finished it. He hasn’t convinced Eliot that the only choice that matters is the next one; that he deserves to be happy. He hasn’t helped Eliot accept that his role as protector is incidental; that they protect each other. He needs to make sure Eliot understands, that he really understands, that they would rather lose the job than lose him.


He’s not expendable. His life isn’t worth less. They will protect him as much as he protects them. His value isn’t determined by how many punches he throws.


And Nate, he’s quit a lot of things by now.


But not this.


He sighs, gathering a breath as he looks at Eliot again. “You and I were never friends,” he says. “But we’re more than that now, Eliot.”


Eliot’s chest rises and falls as the machine breathes for him again.


Nate’s heart twists and he smile, sad and fond. “We’ll always be more.”


Battered, bruised and broken, Eliot doesn’t answer, but Nate doesn’t give any ground. He sits forward, hand on Eliot’s arm, just so the other man understands.


So he knows.


In some ways, sure, Eliot’s always been the easiest.


In the ways that count, though, he’s always been the hardest of them all.


-o-


It takes a good week before Eliot is able to breathe on his own, and another few days before he’s weaned off the drugs enough to be conscious at all. After two weeks, he’s finally moved from the ICU ward and chafing like hell at being stuck in a hospital bed.


He wants out, most obviously, but Nate can see clearly how much he needs to be there. Every movement seems to hurt him, and he’s winded after sitting up in bed. He objects stridently when he gets help to go to the bathroom, but it’s plain that he’d fall flat on his face if he didn’t.


Eliot assures them all, in no uncertain terms, that he’s fine, that no one needs to stick around on his account.


They nod, smile and placate.


But no one leaves.


Not until Eliot is discharged after a month, and they all walk out of that hospital together.


-o-


They have a celebratory dinner that night. Hardison buys pizza, and Parker buys a cake for dessert. Sophie willfully purchases beer, and they set up in Parker and Hardison’s living room.


They eat and drink, talking about old times. They remember their best cases, their worst.


It’s remarkable to Nate that he ever managed to walk away.


He watches Hardison bob his head to the music, and Parker laughs so hard that beer comes out her nose. Sophie’s face lights up in the way it does on stage, and Eliot sits relaxed and easy on the couch with his casted leg propped up on the ottoman.


It’s remarkable.


-o-


When everyone else is asleep, Nate picks a few things up. He’s putting the leftover pizza in the fridge when Eliot rouses, trying to get to his feet as he reaches for his crutches. He’s stopped short with a tight inhale of air, and his legs don’t support him more than a foot off the seat.


Nate’s there when he collapses back down, pale faced and breathing heavy.


“I’m fine,” Eliot hisses, mindful of the rest of the team.


“Uh huh,” Nate says. “When did you last take your pills?”


“Antibiotics were four hours ago,” Eliot mutters tersely.


“And the pain pills?” Nate pushes.


“I don’t need the damn pain pills,” Eliot seethes.


“What’s more embarrassing?” Nate asks. “Passing out in front of them or popping a few pills?”


Nate tilts his head.


Eliot slinks further down.


Nate picks up the bottle of pills off the table and hands it to Eliot. “Your choice.”


-o-


After Eliot takes the pills, Nate takes him upstairs to bed. Parker and Hardison have a spare room, and no one says it’s for him, but everyone knows that it is.


Eliot acquiesces to this treatment with nothing but a scowl, which is a testament to just how poorly he feels. Sulking, he pulls the covers up high and gingerly rolls away from Nate.


“I can do this on my own, you know,” he says.


“You sure about that?” Nate asks.


Eliot huffs but doesn’t turn toward him. “Parker, Hardison and I -- we’ve been fine since you left.”


Nate narrows his eyes.


Eliot shifts again, a little sheepish. “You know what I mean.”


Nate sighs. “You took a bullet to the chest, Eliot,” he says. “That’s not fine.”


“That has nothing to do with anything,” Eliot snaps. “I don’t need you here to babysit me.”


He’s fighting, as only Eliot can. He’s resisting, the last vestiges of a man who’s got nothing left to lose but his ego.


“I’m not leaving this time,” Nate tells him.


At this, Eliot turns his head, leveling a tired glare at Nate. “You think I can’t do it, don’t you?” he asks, voice heavy with accusation. “You think I can’t do my job anymore, that you need to be here to protect them.”


Nate shakes his head.


Eliot doesn’t let him reply. “I swore to you, swore to Sophie I’d protect them,” he says. “To my dying day, and that’s what I’m going to do. No matter what, no regrets. I ain’t quitting this job, Nate.”


Nate just smiles, rocking back on his heels. “I know that, I do,” he says. “Just know: I’m not quitting either.”


Glowering, Eliot rolls back on his side. “Good luck with that.”


Nate tips his head, feeling somehow invigorated.


The chase is on.


-o-


With Eliot out of immediate danger, the house is starting to feel crowded. He finds Sophie checking her phone a lot, sending urgent messages to the hospital curator and her assistant director down at the playhouse.


“You should go,” Nate tells her when they’re alone in Hardison’s office. The pull out couch sounds low-brow, but this is Hardison. He’s spared no expense.


“What? No!” Sophie says, promptly putting her phone away. “The team is our priority right now. I wouldn’t dream of leaving.”


Nate pins her with a knowing look. She means it, but she’s trying too hard. “Sophie.”


“Seriously, Nate,” Sophie says. “I’m staying. Until everyone’s all right.”


He gathers a breath, running his hand down her arm gently. She’s spectacular, his wife. He loves her. “I got this one.”


She shakes her head. “We’re a team.”


“But this is something I started,” he says. “I worked hard to give each of you the thing you needed most. I gave Hardison humility and the ability to put his ego aside to work with a team. I gave Parker connections, people to ground her and the way to use her skills within a moral framework. And you--”


A smile plays on her lips as she leans into him.


He lifts his hand, brushing away the hair from her face. “I think I did a pretty good job with you, too.”


She chuckles, bemused. “Oh, you think so?”


“I know so,” he says. “But Eliot--”


Her smile falters.


His hand drops. “I never quite got Eliot,” he says. “I mean, I showed him how to be part of a family, how to trust people.”


“Which is remarkable, Nate,” Sophie says. “Considering who Eliot was.”


“But it’s not enough,” he says. “I want Eliot to have what the rest of us have. Happy, complete lives.”


“Maybe this is what he wants,” Sophie says. “He likes hitting people for a living.”


Nate gives her a look.


She sighs in defeat. “Okay, I get your point.”


“I thought maybe he was there when we left,” Nate says. “He’d started asking the others for help; he’d really taken to the brewpub; and he asked that girl out.”


“But?” Sophie ventures.


Nate shrugs. “We quit too soon,” he says. “Eliot’s training, it’s not just instinct. It’s not even subconscious. It’s self imposed.”


“He won’t let himself,” Sophie agrees.


“We showed him how to care about a family,” Nate says.


“But not how to let a family really care about him,” Sophie says. “Not for a lack of effort, I might say.”


“Oh, no,” Nate says. “Parker and Hardison -- they’ve been perfect. But the thing we’re looking for in Eliot -- the thing we need to catch -- it’s pretty damn hard to find.”


“Harder still to break,” Sophie says. She chews her lip. “There’s no way to know, you know, what it’ll do to him if we accomplish that. What you want to do, it will change him. Break him even.”


“Better that than the alternative,” Nate says. “This will happen again if we don’t nip it in the bud.”


Sophie straightens. “All the more reason for us all to stay.”


“No,” Nate says. “I started his. I’m going to finish it.”


“We do it together,” Sophie protests.


“I’m the one who’s chased Eliot the longest,” he says. “You and Parker and Hardison, you’ll need to be there to pick up the pieces. But me--”


Sophie wets her lips. “You have to break him.”


Nate tips his head, squeezing her hand. “But only if I catch him first.”


“When,” she says with emphasis, leaning forward to kiss him. Her eyes are bright with confidence again as a smile widens across her face. “When you catch him.”


-o-


Sophie goes home with much fanfare, and the quietness that follows is harder and easier all at once. It’s simpler this way, with one fewer pretense, but the stillness is stretched thin between them and there’s less to cover it now. Parker and Hardison try harder than ever, and they know Eliot’s tells better than Nate does now. They know how he likes his food, and where he likes to sit on the couch. They know just how much Star Trek they can watch before he gets annoyed, and when to never turn the channel on the sports on TV.


Nate’s grateful for this, because they can care for Eliot’s most basic needs without any help at all. Eliot is comfortable and well taken care of it, and there are times when Nate thinks his presence is almost superfluous.


But he still sees it.


The way Eliot tries not to lean too much on the crutches when they’re looking. The way Eliot can’t quite finish his plate at dinner. Eliot’s still trying to make this easier for them.


Which makes Nate’s job even harder.


-o-


A week passes, then two. Eliot’s off his pain meds and his cast is removed in time for physical therapy to start nearly two months from when this started. Supposedly, this is all good news.


Apparently Hardison and Parker don’t buy that any more than Nate does.


“We got to talk,” Hardison announces, herding Nate into the office where he’s been staying and shutting the door firmly behind him.


Parker is somehow already on the couch, and she frowns at him, eyes narrowed knowingly. “You hacked Eliot’s medical files,” she says. “Didn’t you?”


Hardison looks marginally surprised. “Yeah, but -- how did you--”


“Private meeting in a secure house without Eliot,” Parker concludes. “And I’ve been wondering just like you what it really means when Eliot says everything went fine.”


Hardison’s face screws up. “Why didn’t you say something?”


“Because I knew you’d do it without being asked,” Parker says. “Just like we all know he’s lying.”


“See what you did,” Hardison says, glaring at Nate. “You made her a cold hearted cynic.”


Nate can’t help but smile a little. He knows this. He knew just as well as Parker that Hardison would hack the file; he’s honestly just surprised it took him this long. “So what is he lying about?”


Hardison pushes a few more buttons, pulling scanned file to the front. “His progress is not going fine,” he says. “He’s still experiencing pain and limited mobility. The injury to his leg is substantial, and doctors think he’ll regain 75 percent of his previous capacity. 75 percent, and that’s the high end.”


Parker closes her mouth soberly. Nate just waits for more.


“His lung capacity has been affected, and he’s lost a substantial amount of his body mass during the recovery period,” Hardison continues. “Pair all that with the fact that he’s pushing himself too hard, and he’s at risk for new injury.”


Parker is studying the file. “Prognosis?”


Hardison is grim. “Not good,” he says. “I mean, he’s clear of infection, but he’s weak. And his body isn’t bouncing back the way it used to. Even if he can get his leg to work the way it did before, his stamina is probably permanently lowered.”


“Years of abuse, it’s bound to happen eventually,” Parker muses with another look at the file.


“It’s bound to happen now,” Hardison says. “Look, they think he’s a stuntman, okay? And they won’t sign off on any of the papers to let him go back to ‘work.’ Hell, there’s a note in here that recommends a psychiatrist to discuss the long term implications.”


Parker’s expression flickers and she swallows forcibly. “Which means…”


Hardison shrugs, helpless. “Which means it’s going to take him a lot longer than he wants to get back out in the field.”


“Assuming we let him,” Parker says. “If he’s going to get himself killed--”


“And you want to tell him that?” Hardison asks, eyebrows arched. “You want to be the one to tell him that this injury will effectively end his career as a hitter?”


Parker looks at him; Hardison looks at her.


They both turn to Nate.


Nate collects a breath, lets it out. “Let me do this one.”


Hardison is shaking his head.


Parker interjects forcibly. “This is my crew now--”


“We were the ones who were there, man.”


“It was my plan that got him here--”


“And we’re the ones who live with him, day after day.”


Nate nods. “I know,” he says. “Which is exactly why it can’t be you.”


Parker closes her mouth. Hardison stiffens.


“Listen, Eliot, he loves you guys. He needs you guys. He’d do anything for you,” he explains. “That’s been so good for him. So, so good for him.”


Parker shifts her stance, and Hardison ducks his head a little.


“In a lot of ways, you saved him, his soul,” Nate says. “But no matter what you do, you’ll never be able to save his life because he won’t let you.”


Parker lifts her chin, jaw tight. “And he’ll let you?”


“No, oh, no,” Nate says quickly. “I’m not going to help him change, though. I’m going to make him change.”


Hardison chews his lip. “He’ll fight you.”


“He’ll probably hate you,” Parker says.

“I know,” Nate says with a deep breath. “Which is why this one is on me.”


Parker and Hardison nod.


Nate presses his lips together, rallying his courage. “Only me.”


-o-


Parker works out the rest, and Hardison creates a cover story so flawless that Eliot won’t be able to see through it. Even if he suspects, in his present condition, he’ll have no way to prove it.


“We owe it to her to go back,” Parker says with a truly apologetic shrug. “We knew that leaving Mason’s wife in play might cause problems, and if we don’t go sort it out, our client could be left with nothing. Again.”


They’re eating dinner around Parker and Hardison’s table. Lev is sitting anxiously at Nate’s side, hoping for scraps.


Eliot, who’s barely touched the stroganoff Nate made, nods. “Then we go,” he says. “I can be ready--”


He stops as Parker and Hardison exchange purposeful looks.


“What?” he asks, although he probably already knows the answer.


“We can handle this one,” Parker says, trying to sound conversational.


“It’s a two-man thing anyway,” Hardison says. “The wife’s only got one play, and all we have to do is take that off the table. Two weeks, in and out.”


“I remember Mason’s security procedures,” Eliot says. “That’s not a two-man job.”


“It’s mostly dismantled now,” Hardison says. “She’s got two guards on her, and she’s already sleeping with one of them.”


“Besides,” Parker says. “You’re still recovering.”


“I’m fine,” Eliot grunts. It’s a familiar refrain since he woke up, but no matter how much he growls the words, it sounds less and less true every time.


“You’ve still got weeks of therapy,” Hardison says. “Seriously, man. Have you been doing your stretches? Because I tried those things, and they’re harder than they look.”


Eliot blows out a breath, clearly searching for a semblance of self control.


“A month ago, you were bleeding out,” Parker says. “We’re not going to rush this.”


“So you two are just going to go off without me, huh?” Eliot asks, voice heavy with accusation. “No backup?”


“Hey, man, you’re not the only person playing backup on this team,” Hardison reminds him. “We all pull that card from time to time.”


“But if things get rough,” Eliot seethes. “If someone throws punches or pulls a gun--”


“You’ll what?” Parker asks, head inclined. “Show them your bullet hole so they know where not to aim?”


Eliot’s face flushes, and he blinks a few times in quick succession.


Parker’s shoulders fall, and Nate resists the urge to intervene. This is a con they’re playing, and Parker’s just laying the hook. Nate has to wait until Eliot takes the bait before he can have any hopes of conning him out of his facades.


You don’t con your own crew, that’s a mantra they all learned the hard way. It’s the gold standard, the only honest truth between criminals.


Except, of course, when you’re doing it to save them.


Especially from themselves.


“It wouldn’t be worth your time anyway,” Hardison says. “Stay here, take care of Lev, enjoy yourself. Nate here will keep you company. Nonstop party, two good old boys.”


Eliot looks at Nate suspiciously. “Shouldn’t you be back with the wife by now?”


“Uh no,” Nate says, loading his fork up. “She’s actually got a complete list of things she wants to do while I’m gone, and I was given explicit instructions not to come back for several more weeks. I miss my own bed, sure, but I’m honestly a little afraid to know exactly what she’s doing.”


Eliot’s scowl deepens considerably. He suspects something, but he’s in no position to prove anything.


“If we didn’t owe the client this, we wouldn’t go,” Parker says. “But it’s a small job. It’s more important that you stay here, focus on yourself.”


Slumping, Eliot looks dejectedly at his plate. “I’m fine,” he grumbles again, less forcefully than the first time.


Parker’s eyes shift to Nate, and he tips his head infinitesimally.


“We know,” Parker says with a surprising amount of diplomacy. Her smile widens. “We’re all fine.”


Nate takes a bit of food and does his best not to smile. Parker’s learned, and she’s learned well.


The best lie is always the truth.


-o-


If things are awkward with Parker and Hardison there, they get even more so when they leave. Eliot insists -- damn near throws a fit, in truth -- that he accompanies them to the airport and sees them all the way through security. He has the audacity to lecture them about staying safe, making them go over the appropriate security measures and defensive positions.


The irony is, of course, that Eliot’s still barely upright. He’s guarding his ribs badly, moving with a ginger deliberateness that does little to belie his still healing wounds.


All this aside, Eliot makes a valiant showing of it, and he’s still standing at the window, watching until the plane takes off.


Nate stands next to him, just as his elbow, waiting.


He watches as Eliot turns around, his face noticeably drawn. He’s overtaxed himself, and Nate knows it. It’s only a question of how much longer Eliot will pretend he doesn’t. Eliot’s given everything he has for the sake of Parker and Hardison, which is exactly what Nate’s counting on.


Eliot will give everything he has -- himself -- for their sake.


That means he’ll have nothing left where Nate’s concerned.


It’s a hell of a way to get the upper hand, but Nate’s not above fighting dirty.


He tweaks his eyebrows. “You, uh, doing okay there?” Nate asks, nodding at Eliot.


Eliot winces, inhaling sharply as he takes a step away from the window. “I’m--”


“--fine?” Nate finishes for him.


Eliot looks at him, jaw locked disdainfully.


Nate smiles broadly, slapping Eliot on the shoulder -- not too hard to hurt him, but just hard enough to prove his point. “I know, I know,” he says as he starts to walk away, trusting Eliot will follow. “Of course you are.”


-o-


None of this has been easy, not since Parker called Nate in the middle of the night and Eliot spent two weeks in a hospital bed. That’s an important context to remember since things get exponentially harder.


Not in practical matters. With just the two of them, there’s not a lot to complicate things. Nate does the cooking and cleaning, driving Eliot to and from his therapy sessions with discrete punctuality. It’s quieter, and there’s far less debate over what to watch. More of than not, Eliot and Nate exist silently side by side, in an unspoken rhythm that must surely seem reassuring to those on the outside.


And that’s not to say there’s not truth to it. Eliot is getting better by certain margins. He’s putting on weight again, and he’s able to walk a little more each day. His color is returning, and when Nate helps him change the bandage, the angry red incision is starting to heal beneath the stark black stitches.


That’s too easy, though. Nate knows what Eliot is doing. Eliot’s playing the long game, just like Nate is. He thinks that if he can get back into his daily routine, if he can do all the normal things, if he doesn’t complain, then Nate will be forced to accept that Eliot is actually fine. In short, Eliot’s playing to win this round.


That’s all well and good, but Nate’s playing for higher stakes.


Eliot, he’s good.


But Nate?


Well, he’s better.


He caught Eliot before; he’s going to do it again.


And this time, the hitter is not going to get away.


-o-


The first sign of weakness is when Eliot wants to make dinner. Nate knows it was only a matter of time until they got to this point, partly because Eliot loves to cook. But, more practically speaking, it’s another move in Eliot’s strategy. It’s another way to prove to Nate he can handle himself on his own.


Nate agrees to Eliot cooking as though it’s nothing, and he sits down with the newspaper in the great room, within easy visual range of the kitchen without making it ostentatious.


He’s watching, though.


Oh, he’s definitely watching.


He watches as Eliot chops the vegetables, slower than normal but just as precise. He watches as Eliot slices the chicken into slices while soaking the potatoes in a bowl by the stove. He watches as Eliot gathers the spices and oil before reaching for the flour up on the top shelf of the pantry.


He watches for this.


The reach is just far enough, and even on his toes, Eliot just doesn’t have the height. His fingers brush it once, then twice. The hitter visibly braces himself before, extending again, in a way that Nate knows is pulling his stitches horribly.


It’s enough to pull the container forward and tip it down.


Unfortunately, it’s also enough to make Eliot gasp in pain, his body curling back in on itself defensively as the still healing wound is jarred painfully.


Nate watches, passively, while the container of flour tumbles from the shelf, slipping past Eliot’s too slow fingers before hitting the floor. The plastic lid flies free on impact, skittering across the floor as flour sprays everywhere in a haze of white.


Eliot curses loudly, still clutching his chest protectively. He’s seething, spattered with white and face drained of color.


Looking over the top of his newspaper, Nate raises his eyebrows. “Everything okay over there?”


It’s a stupid, obtuse question, and purposefully so. Eliot looks like he might punch something or pass out -- whichever comes first -- and it’s a sure sign that his self control is dangerously close to slipping.


Still, Nate’s not going to make this easy on him. There will be no quick fixes on this one, not when Nate’s playing the long game. Not when Nate’s playing to win.


Keeping his torso rigid, Eliot visibly swallows. He looks up at Nate, making an obvious effort to keep his face composed. “Nothing,” Eliot grunts breathlessly. He glances at the mess. “Just a little accident.”


This isn’t a game of humiliation, and Nate almost feels guilty seeing Eliot like this. It’s nothing for the other man to be ashamed of, but Nate knows Eliot. He knows how hard this is for him.


Gentler now, Nate asks, “Need some help?”


The kinder the offer, the more cruel the rejection. Eliot half snarled, pulling off his apron with a ragged, angry motion. “No,” he says curtly, wadding up the fabric and tossing it on his half-cut vegetables. “I’ll just call in for pizza.”


It’s pure stubbornness, the innate refusal to accept outside help. That’s Eliot; it’s how he’s survived this long. It’s not so much a question of trust as it is the refusal to let himself be a burden. Eliot judges his worth on his utility, not his intrinsic value. It’s impossible for him to see right now that people care about him, not what he can do.


Nate adjusts the paper, schooling his voice carefully. “You sure you don’t need anything?”


“I’m fine!” Eliot snaps, pulling out his phone and stepping over the mess.


Clearly, Eliot is playing the long game, too. The last stand of a proud man.


Nate picks up his paper again, making a point to turn the page and settle back down. This time, he doesn’t watch, doesn’t even make a move to help while Eliot cleans up the mess, slowly and meticulously, wheezing the whole time.


They eat pizza that night, and the kitchen sparkles.


Nate smiles, finishing up another piece.


“Good pizza,” he says, taking a swig of beer.


Eliot slumps and takes another bite, still on his first pizza.


Nate wipes his fingers on a napkin, pulling another slice out of the box.


This is how you lose a battle.


In order to win the war.


-o-


“And you didn’t help him?” Sophie crows in his ear when he calls her later. Eliot’s asleep, passed out on the couch the moment he sat down. Nate thought about waking him, but he can’t bring himself to be quite that cruel to him.


“It’s all part of the plan,” Nate says, laying back on the pillows.


“You’re talking like he’s a mark,” Sophie says, incredulous.


“He is, remember?” Nate reminds her.


Sophie makes a small noise; she’s flouncing.


“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have to,” he adds, and this much he means.


She sighs audibly over the line. “I shouldn’t be surprised that he’s this stubborn.”


“It’s why he was the best hitter around,” Nate says. “Self reliance -- it’s not just a catch phrase for him.”


“But he came so far,” Sophie says. “And we still have to make sure he knows we care.”


“Oh, he knows we care,” Nate says. “He just doesn’t know how to let us care. Eliot’s spent his life fulfilling duties. From his parents, from the government, from Moreau -- from himself. He’s traded all that for Parker and Hardison, which is more altruistic, sure--”


“--but still part of the same pattern of behavior,” she commiserates. “Poor dear has always been susceptible to neuro linguistic cues. He strongly favors routine.”


“Exactly,” Nate says. “He finds a role, and he becomes the best at it. It’s what he does.”


“Are we sure that breaking him of that is a good idea?” Sophie posits hesitantly. “You said it yourself, he’s been this way for longer than we’ve known him.”


“Hey, we’ve all be faced with the same problem,” Nate says. “I seem to remember someone running off to Europe to figure herself out.”


Sophie huffs a laugh. “And I seem to remember someone living at the bottom of a bottle for a year.”


“And Parker jumps off buildings and Hardison is all pomp and circumstance,” he says. “We just haven’t gotten Eliot quite far enough yet.”


“It’d be nice if he didn’t jump in front of bullets to prove it,” Sophie muses.


“Well, that’s what we’re going to prevent,” Nate says. “That’s why I’m here.”


Sophie hums a little. “Well, you better hurry up,” she says. “You may not break him if you stay there much longer, but you might break me.”


“Two weeks,” Nate says. “Before Parker and Hardison get back.”


“Two weeks,” she agrees. “Or I’m coming there and programming him into compliance myself.”


Two weeks, he tells himself as he hangs up that night. He looks at the ceiling and feels exhausted.


The chase never used to be so exhausting. But he’s not the same man he used to be; he’s forgotten, just how much it takes to follow someone so closely. There’s a reason he was hardly home sometimes; there’s a reason he missed most of Sam’s childhood.


There’s a reason the bottom fell out of that life.


He closes his eyes.


Two weeks.


For Eliot’s sake -- and his.


-o-


Nate’s determined.


So is Eliot.


Two days later, he finds the other man splayed out on the bed in Hardison and Parker’s spare room, eyes closed and face covered with sweat.


And his sutured chest exposed.


For one, horrible second, Nate fears the worst.


That he’s let this go on too far, that he’s given Eliot just enough rope to hang himself. That’s the risk when you run a con, it’s what he lectures Hardison about. If you go too big, if you oversell, you lose the mark.


It’s like ice water in Nate’s veins.


You lose the mark.


But Eliot’s eyes are open by the time Nate’s in the room, and he’s sitting up wearily by the time Nate moves to help him. He’s coherent enough to pull away at Nate’s touch, growling even as he flinches in pain.


“We’re not supposed to change your bandage for another hour,” Nate says, working to keep his voice even. He’s worried -- there’s no way not to be -- but if Eliot’s going to play defense, then Nate can’t let up his offense.


Eliot exhales heavily, reaching tiredly for the gauze piled on the bed next to him. “I can do it myself.”


It’s something of an effort not to laugh, but he knows that outright mockery is not the way to go with this one. Eliot needs a lighter touch.


“Uh huh,” Nate says, eyes scanning the room. He sees the pain pills -- still not taken -- on the bedside table. The soiled bandage is on the pillow. It’s not clear to Nate how Eliot truly intended to wind fresh gauze over the healing incision, given how sore his chest is. What is clear, however, is that Eliot’s trying to assert his self control. Nate’s job, therefore, is to let him. “And you decided to take a nap instead?”


Eliot’s too exhausted to glare.


Nate has to let him.

Let him prove Nate’s point for him.


Actions, after all, speak a hell of a lot louder than words.


“It just hurt a little more than I expected,” Eliot drawls breathlessly.


That’s poorly underplayed. Nate steps back, rocking on his heels. “You do know that you have pain pills, right?”


Eliot grunts, unfurling the bandage a little bit. “Don’t need ‘em.”


Nate chews his lip, nodding for a moment. “Do you want me to…?”


“I’m fine, Nate,” Eliot cuts him off. He looks up through the long strands of his hair. “I’m fine.”


Eliot’s weak and tired and he’s doing himself more harm than good. Eliot’s just as likely to kill himself as save himself at this point, and it’s not an easy thing to watch. All guises aside, Nate cares about Eliot, and he hates to see the other man in pain.


He wants to fix it; that’s what he does.


He will, too.


But only when Eliot’s ready.


Pale faced with a handful of gauze, Eliot’s just not ready yet.


Nate nods again. “Okay.”


He walks slowly out the door so Eliot is sure to see him leave. He makes a point not to check back, not until Eliot’s already asleep. He finds him, passed out on top of the sheets. The dirty bandage is on the floor, but the fresh one is expertly bound around his chest. There are two pain pills missing, and Nate knows he’s close.


Eliot will take the pain pills before he takes Nate’s help. That’s a compromise of last resort.


That’s the only motivation he needs to resist covering Eliot with a blanket before retreating back to his own room for the night.


-o-


“Hot tea,” Parker says. “Are you making him hot tea?”


“Uh, no,” Nate replies, as nonchalantly as possible.


“But Eliot likes hot tea,” Parker insists. “It helps him relax.”


“Sure, but the point is to not help him,” Nate reminds her. Lev whines nearby, resting his head eagerly on Nate’s knee.


“Help him by not helping,” Hardison chimes in. “Nice to know you’ve still got a twisted sense of logic, man.”


“We have to push him to his breaking point,” Nate says with a shrug over the video call as he scratches Lev indulgently behind the ears. “He has to be willing to make the change, otherwise we’ll be right back where we were before this started.”


“Which was fine, by the way,” Parker says with a scowl. She’s actually pouting a little, arms crossed in a huff over her chest.


“Yeah, that’s what he says,” Nate tells her. “And they pulled a bullet from his chest.”


Parker almost flinches, and Nate has to remind himself that tough love isn’t about being cruel.


“I’m just saying, we all pretend to be fine sometimes, and that’s okay,” Nate says. “But not for Eliot. His fine is going to get him killed, no matter what you do to prevent it. You and Hardison, you’re doing everything you can to make this a two way street, but you can’t give what he won’t accept.”


“Which is unconditional love and support,” Hardison says. “I mean, the dude finally trusts us, but he’s a stubborn son of a bitch.”


“We agreed that we all change, for better or worse,” Parker says.


“But not for dead,” Hardison says. “Look, I don’t like it either, but if this thing had gone different -- if we had lost Eliot--”


Parker visibly blanches.


“I’m close, guys,” Nate assures them, stilling his hand for a moment. “I know I am.”


Parker lets out a long breath, glaring at Nate over the connection. “Fine,” she mutters. “But at least make sure there’s enough tea in the house for him to make it himself, okay?”


Nate smiles in acquiescence. “Okay.”


“And kiwi,” she says. “He likes kiwi.”


“And make sure there are gummy frogs in my stash,” Hardison says. “He won’t admit it, but he steals them all the time.”


“And vanilla shampoo,” Parker adds.


“Minty toothpaste--”


“Yeah, yeah, um,” Nate interjects, stroking Lev again while the dog’s tail starts the thump on the ground. “I think I got it, okay?”


“Just know,” Parker says, sitting forward intently now. “That if you break our Eliot--”


Hardison inclines his head next to her. “Then you sure as hell better fix him, too.”


A pressure tightens in Nate’s chest and he forces himself to smile. “That is the plan.”


-o-


Nate’s always been good with plans. He knows how to make them, but more importantly, he knows how to stick with them, no matter how hard it gets. That’s what made him the best insurance investigator. That’s what made him the ideal man to head up Leverage. It’s how he finally ended up happily married with Leverage International still going strong.


Nate’s just really good at plans.


This one, however, is going to push him to the limits.


It’s hard enough to watch Eliot struggle on his own. This is mostly Eliot’s own doing since he refuses ask for help, but it still runs counter to his instincts. But to see him in pain? Actual, physical pain?


Nate’s not sure he’ll make it the full two weeks.


This is, of course, the game Eliot is playing. It’s a game of emotional chicken, where Eliot pushes his limits to see how much Nate will let him. The desperate desire to prove Nate wrong is what is going to prove him right in the end.


Watching Eliot at therapy, however.


That’s a whole different story.


The rehab facility is just far enough away that Nate doesn’t have time to drive back to Parker and Hardison’s place after dropping him off. Sure, there are probably some places nearby Nate could visit, but he isn’t big on playing tourist and the last thing he needs is to become a regular at the local bar.


Besides, he reasons with himself, it’s important that Eliot knows how much Nate knows. This way, Eliot doesn’t have any reprieve, especially when he probably needs it most.


It’s disheartening enough to see the damage Eliot’s body has taken -- and not just from the most recent injury. Eliot’s spent his entire adult life making his body a weapon, and it shows. He’s breathless from simple exercises, and Nate can see the way his body trembles with exertion as he tries to perform. He’s so focused that he doesn’t even have the energy to flirt with the cute looking physical therapist who coaches him along.


But to see how hard he tries; how much he wants it. To see him struggle to reconcile with the fact that he can’t.


Needless to say, there’s a reason Nate spent so much time drunk in his life. Feelings are a pain in the ass.


When the therapist finally calls it a day, Eliot tries to argue with her. “But we’ve got ten minutes left,” he protests.


She looks at him, sympathetic. “If you’re worried about getting your money’s worth--”


“It ain’t about the money,” Eliot snaps. “I can do it -- I can--”


Her face sets a little deeper with the sympathy. “You’ve already accomplished a lot, but it’s important to recognize your limits--”


“I can do it,” Eliot says again, pulling himself up onto wobbly legs again.


“The bullet tore through your lung; you have diminished capacity for air,” she explains reasonably. “And with the amount of time you spent in bed, your muscles have to rebuild themselves, not to mention the lingering neurological impact--”


Eliot is red in the face now, sweat dripping from his hair. “I swear to you, I can do it.”


He’s emphatic, and he’s wholly intent. Nate wants to believe him. So, so badly.


The therapist smiles a little more, different this time. Not just sympathy.


Pity.


She reaches out, squeeze Eliot’s bicep. “We’re done,” she says. “You may as well accept that before you injure yourself worse than before.”


Eliot stands rigidly while she walks away, not leaving the conversation open to discussion. She’s not lying to him; in fact, she’s saying exactly what Nate’s been trying to show Eliot since he arrived. And without context, the plain and honest truth is even harder to swallow for both of them.


Even Nate, though, with all his good intentions, he’s not quite let himself realize the ramifications of it. Of what it means for Eliot to shift away from his role as hitter into a more integrated part of the whole. It’s one thing to think about the positives, about keeping Eliot safe and building deeper relationships between the team.

It’s another to think about Eliot being less than he was, about Eliot losing the thing that had defined him for so long. It’s arguably for the best -- and Nate knows that, he does -- but the loss is palpable.


The loss is something they’ll all have to grieve, each in their own way.


Eliot more than the rest.


Nate is aware suddenly that he’s not just asking Eliot to open himself up -- he’s asking Eliot to give himself up. Not just to lay down his life, but to surrender the things he knows about himself. Such a task would be hard for anyone, but for Eliot?


Nate may truly be asking the impossible.


Blinking rapidly, Eliot grabs his bag and limps toward the door. Nate moves to follow as Eliot bypasses the locker room and heads straight for the exit.


“Eliot, hey--” Nate says.


Eliot ignores him, pushing the door open with force.


Nate catches it, smiling apologetically at another patient brushed aside while Eliot storms out. “Eliot, listen--”


At the car, Eliot tries to open the door. When it’s locked, he slams his palm against the window with a curse.


“Eliot,” Nate says, still a step behind. “Maybe we should talk.”


Eliot looks at him, eyes bright with tears he absolutely refuses to shed. “Nothing to talk about.”


Nate’s resolve wavers. This is Eliot, after all, and Nate’s not heartless. He cares about his team, no matter how long he’s away from the game. He cares about Eliot, and seeing him like this--


Seeing him coming so close to falling apart--


Nate doesn’t know if he can do this after all.


But Eliot keeps his gaze steady. “I’m fine, Nate,” he says. “I’m fine.”


It’s spoken in vitriol and pain.


More than that, it’s spoken in defiance.


Just like that, Nate’s competitive spirit is sparked and he remembers why he started this.


And why he has to finish it.


He straightens, unlocking the door. “Good,” he says, opening the door. “Because it’s your night to cook.”


Eliot’s expression crumples almost imperceptibly. Nate doesn’t bother to watch as Eliot struggles to pull it together. Instead, he climbs in behind the wheel and waits for Eliot to sit down in the seat next to him. He doesn’t wait for Eliot to get his seatbelt on all the way before he’s got the car in drive, and he’s off.


No slowing down.


And no looking back.