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Leverage fic: If You Have a Place (1/2)

December 30th, 2016 (08:37 pm)
discontent

feeling: discontent

Title: If You Have a Place Where You Belong (Well, You’re a Lucky One)

Disclaimer: I do not own Leverage.

A/N: Set late S1. No beta. Fills my wild card space for hc_bingo.

Summary: There’s no right choice. Just three wrong ones.



-o-

Nate can’t remember what he drank last night. He can’t even remember why he fell asleep at the office or how many days it’s actually been since he managed to stumble back to his own apartment.

He does, however, remember waking up, and though he can’t remember what he drank, he knows plainly he drank a lot given the pounding in his head and the turning of his stomach.

He’s too old for this.

He’s too sober for it, too.

Stumbling out of his office, Nate hopes he doesn’t look as terrible as he feels. His tongue feels thick and sticky, and his eyes are crusted over. He needs a shower and a shave, but first -- and this is important -- he needs coffee.

If he’s lucky, there will already be a pot on, but only if Sophie’s there. And Sophie will only humor him with a steaming cup if she can give him that look of hers, like he should know better.

She’s the one who should know better.

Honestly, it’s not like this is some kind of surprise.

But the office is empty. There’s no sign of Hardison and his computers or Parker and her cereal. Eliot’s not reading a book in the corner, and Sophie isn’t flipping through a magazine.

He’s alone, he realizes.

What a novel idea.

-o-

A pot of coffee later, he finally manages to take a shower. Absently, he thinks he should thank Hardison for including such a complete bathroom in their office space, but he doesn’t want a little gratitude to go straight to the kid’s head. Besides, there’s a good chance he won’t remember this train of thought later.

He shaves and tries to make it look like he hasn’t been crashing at the office before traipsing sluggishly back to the main room. They should be there by now, congregating the way they always do when they’re looking for a case. Nate’s got a few leads, but when he comes into the meeting space, he doesn’t have a team.

He decides to make the most of it.

-o-

Sketching out his notes, he starts to check his phone, but there are no messages. By lunch, he’s narrowed down the field, and he’s ready to start running some basic background checks, but his texts to Hardison go unanswered. It’s nearly two in the afternoon and Nate’s so bored that he doesn’t know what to do with himself, and that’s when the call comes.

He smirks when he sees the number -- Sophie.

He picks the phone up and holds it to his ear. “Hey, where are you guys? I was starting to think everyone took a day off and forgot to tell me about it.”

There’s a pause and a breath. Deep and airy.

Not Sophie.

Nate’s stomach turns, his hackles rise. He stiffens instantly, and he’s holding his breath when the voice speaks over the other end of the phone.

“Hello, Mr. Ford,” the voice says, smooth as silk.

“Who is this?” Nate demands, wishing like hell he had Hardison here to start triangulating a fix on Sophie’s phone.

“Oh, you know me very well,” the voice replies. “You did, after all, have to research every part of my personal life and business when you took down my company last month.”

Last month.

Nate thinks, and tries to remember.

Last month, last month, last month. He remembers the number of bars he visited, and the different brands of whisky he drank, and he remembers Sophie’s horrible play and Eliot’s poker game.

And--

“Philip Knobloch,” he remembers. “CEO of Knobloch Kinetics.”

“Former,” Knobloch clarifies. “Knobloch has been cut and parceled, sold off to the highest bidders. My life’s work has been deconstructed before my eyes while I await a litany of civil and criminal charges.”

“Yeah, well, next time don’t dump toxic waste into the water supply,” Nate says. “Fifteen cases of childhood cancer in the same three mile radius speaks for itself.”

“And you get to decide?” Knobloch seethes.

“I did, didn’t I?” Nate asks.

“You did, didn’t you?” comes the dripping reply. “Justice determined by those who take it.”

“When the law won’t help, I do what I can,” Nate tells him honestly. “Now tell me how you got this phone.”

There’s a small chuckle on the other end of the line. “Well, let’s just say I knew the law wouldn’t help me get justice, even if you and your team are a band of criminals,” he says. “So I did what I could.”

Nate’s stomach turns to ice, and his head starts to spin. “Tell me how you got this phone,” he repeats, the demand heavier than before.

“Doesn’t matter how,” Knobloch says. “I don’t think Ms. Devereux is going to miss it, though.”

Nate’s fists are clenched and he’s on his feet. “If you hurt her, I swear to God--”

“Oh please,” Knobloch says. “She’s fine for now.”

He lets out a breath, but his fingers are still clasped tight. “Let her go.”

“Yes, yes,” Knobloch says. “Contrary to what you think, I’m not an unreasonable man. I generally want to do the right thing, just like you. But sometimes, life gives us situations that require a compromise, and compromises aren’t always pretty.”

“You can’t compromise on people’s lives,” Nate grinds out.

“Can’t you?” Knobloch asks with feigned innocence. “Are you sure about that?”

Certainty is a trait for the naive, and Nate believes not in his infallibility but in his ability to predict it. The only thing that Nate is sure about is that the world is going to let him down, and his only defense is to assume the worst.

He can’t right now, though. He can’t assume that Sophie’s already dead, that she’s gone and that he missed it because he’s too hungover to pick up his damn phone and call her.

“Tell me where she is,” Nate demands instead.

“Of course,” Knobloch agrees. “I’ll tell you where they all are.”

At this, Nate stops cold again.

“Yes,” Knobloch chuckles again. “Them. Each held at separate, secure locations that I will text to you with proof of life. Then you are free to pick them up at your leisure.”

There’s a catch, though.

There’s always a damn catch, and Nate just doesn’t know what it is.

“And that’s it?” he prompts suspiciously.

“Well, more or less,” Knobloch says. “The thing is -- and this is a minor point -- they’re all next to bombs. No motion sensors or tricky wires or anything like that. Just a simple timer, set to detonate in, well, 45 minutes.”

Nate looks at his watch, frantically starting to calculate.

“Forty-five minutes; four people, it’s not terrible odds,” Knobloch explains. “Of course, they are all located at the four opposite points of the city. This time of day, the amount of traffic -- I mean, you can save one, for sure. Probably even two. And possibly -- possibly -- three.”

Nate’s heart is hammering in his chest now, palms starting to sweat.

“But not all four, I’m afraid,” Knobloch continues. “You’ll lose something on this one.”

Something, Nate’s mind churns. His hitter, his hacker, his grifter, his thief.

“That seems fitting, I think, Mr. Ford,” Knobloch says diplomatically. “I mean, that’s what you did for me, right? You didn’t bankrupt me exactly, and you didn’t just take a simple hit. You didn’t even cut my family out of earning money from the sell off. You just ruined me, that’s all. My reputation; my ability to get a job. You took just enough to make life impossible to live. Really, I think I’m being pretty nice by comparison.”

Not something, someone.

Sophie, Hardison, Parker, Eliot.

He squeezes his eyes shut.

“You see, Mr. Ford,” Knobloch concludes. “No matter how much you win, you still lose something.”

-o-

Nate’s still holding the phone when the call disconnects. He’s still staring blankly through the wall in front of him, trying to believe this isn’t what it seems.

His mind flits through all the ways he should have seen this coming, but settles on the hard truth that he didn’t. Because it’s not just a job anymore, is it? It’s not just a team.

Nate’s not just going to lose something.

No, he’s going to lose everything.

-o-

He gets four texts, one after another. The first is from Sophie’s number, and it shows her tied to a chair with today’s paper on her lap. She’s looking at the camera -- hell, she’s looking right at him -- and he knows in an instant just how scared she is.

Hardison is next, and if Sophie’s fear is hiding in her eyes, Hardison’s is written all over his face. The whites of his eyes are huge against his skin, and he looks as young as he is -- as young as Nate never lets himself realize Hardison actually is -- in the high resolution image.

Parker is glaring at the camera, which is a little reassuring. But there’s an abrasion on her cheek that is less so. She went with a fight.

So he’s not surprised when Eliot’s still slumped unconscious, someone holding up his head by his hair. It’s no small feat to take down Eliot, which means Knobloch had numbers and the element of surprise on his side.

It’s amazing what you can do, after all, when you’re motivated by revenge.

Four pictures, four addresses. There’s no one to grift; nothing to hack. There’s nothing to steal and no one to hit.

He glances at his watch.

Just 40 minutes for Nate to salvage the only good things in his life.

-o-

In the car, he tries to do the math. He tries to think of a way he can navigate to all four points around town and get them out alive. But there’s heavy traffic today, and road work has the main access points closed.

There’s one more text message.

When you get there, smile. You’re on candid camera. Call for help, and the bombs will be detonated. Deactivate them with your son’s birthdate.

Nate pushes the pedal a little harder when there’s another ping.

Can’t wait to see who you pick first!

-o-

Logically, he should pick the person closest to him and work in a clockwise fashion to maximize his effort. Or, he should focus on those team members least likely to get themselves out of trouble. Hardison is the least experienced in the field, and with no one around, Sophie’s got no one to con. Parker’s more than a little accustomed to tight situations, but she’s not good about facing real emotions. And Eliot’s more than capable of defending himself -- Nate knows he’s been in tighter spots before -- but unconscious? He’s as good as dead.

There’s no right choice.

Just three wrong ones.

-o-

Nate doesn’t make personal choices anymore, not outside what brand of whisky to buy and how much to drink.

This is what he didn’t want; this is what he tried to avoid. This is what he told himself their little team would never be; this is what he tried to walk away from after the Nigerian Job.

His fingers are tight on the wheel as he navigates the streets. A little faster, a little farther.

He’s in too deep.

God help him, he’s in way too deep.

It’s not a question of if anymore. If this whole thing will blow up in his face.

It’s a question of when.

No, scratch that, Nate tells himself as he careens around a corner. His clock ticks ahead another minute, and he’s barely got a half hour left.

It’s a question of who.

-o-

Sophie.

It’s not even conscious thought that takes him there, but he’s not surprised. She’s the only one he’s picked in all of this, ever since the start. She’s the one.

He saves Sophie first, not because she’s the easiest or the closest or the most vulnerable. But because she’s Sophie, his Sophie, the possibility he chased and he can’t lose that.

He won’t lose Sophie.

He finds her, bound and gagged. There’s a bomb next to her, counting down with thirty minutes to go. She watches him as he disarms it -- Sam’s birthday is the code, just as he’d been told -- and it beeps off compliantly. Sophie’s eyes are wide as he pulls the gag from her mouth. “Nate, the others--” she starts with urgency.

“I know, I know,” he tells her, working on the bindings around her wrist.

She shakes her head. “He’s going to kill them, Nate,” she says. “Tell me you have a plan.”

Nate swallows hard and looks at her. She’s beautiful, his possibility. Even without her makeup and with her hair mussed on her head, she’s the prettiest thing he’s ever seen. He’s never seen her this undone, he’s never seen her this stripped away. He doesn’t know her real name or where she’s really from, but looking at her now, nose to nose, this is Sophie.

And the plainest truth is that she trusts him.

She trusts him to fix this.

“Yeah,” he says, fingers almost numb as he pulls away the last binding. “I have a plan.”

-o-

They split up for the next two, because there’s no other way to do it. Too much ground to cover, too little time to get there. It’s mostly pure logistics that dictates the rest. Hardison and Parker are the closest two, and he leaves the faster route for Sophie and gives her the keys to his car.

She pauses, squeezing his arm as she holds his gaze. “We’re going to get them back, right?” she asks. “We have to get them back.”

Nate has a little farther to drive, and he still has to steal a car. The minutes are ticking down faster than he cares to look, and Eliot’s still on the other side of town.

That doesn’t matter, though. He looks her in the eyes. “We’re going to get them back.”

It’s ironic that this is the lie she won’t call him on.

-o-

After Sam, it’s a short list of things in this life that he’s willing to go without. He gave up on his job, his house, his marriage -- he let all of it go. If he couldn’t find it at the bottom of a whisky glass, then it hadn’t been that important to him after all.

It’s different now. He’s not quite the honest man he thought he was, and he’s not sure he’s the black knight his team needs him to be. He’s not sure what he is.

But it’s more than just losing Sophie. There’s no relief, knowing that at least he’s got her. Of any of them, she’s the one who might stand beside him when everything else falls apart, but it wouldn’t be the same.

Hardison, Parker, Eliot.

He’s been looking for purpose at the bottom of a drink.

It’s not quite occurred to him until now that he may have been looking in the wrong place.

-o-

He gets the text from Sophie when he comes to a screeching stop outside the abandoned warehouse where Hardison is.

I’ve got her; all clear.

Simple words, but the relief is palpable. Two down, Nate thinks as he jumps out the door with the engine still running.

Two down.

-o-

Hardison is in a chair, which has been tipped over on the floor. He’s turned himself around so he’s facing the bomb, and his wrists are raw from his writhing. He looks annoyed and relieved when Nate punches in the right code to turn the timer off, and his mouth is already working when Nate finally wrenches the gag from from his mouth.

“Oh, hell, no,” Hardison says. “I’ve been sitting here racking my brain with solutions to disarm this thing before it takes out half a city block, and you had the pass code?”

It’s not easy to get the ropes around his wrist free, and Hardison is not intent on helping.

“Of course, in the future, I would prefer not to be kidnapped in the first place,” he says, sounding positively indignant. “I mean, I hope there was at least a good ransom demand. A couple of million, give or take. Or something dramatic, like freeing someone from a maximum security prison or bringing back the dodo bird from extinction.”

The ropes fall away, and Nate reaches down to pull Hardison to his feet.

“Tell me I was worth at least several hundred thousand,” he says, brow knitted in concern. “Anything less would be a damn insult.”

“No ransom,” Nate says, glancing at his watch as his phone buzzes again.

“No ransom?” Hardison asks. “Then what the hell did you give them to get me back alive?”

Nate looks at the message from Sophie. On our way to Eliot.

He closes his eyes, too afraid to do the math he already knows the answer to.

Eliot, he thinks. He gave them Eliot.

“Come on,” he says instead, pulling Hardison by the arm. “This isn’t over yet.”

-o-

Hardison has questions -- so many questions. Who did this, why? How did Nate get there; is Parker really okay? What are they going to do to the son of a bitch who thought that crossing this team was a good idea. And how much time do they have left?

Nate answers all the questions.

All the questions but the last one.

The billows of smoke on the horizon answer it for him.

-o-

Sophie and Parker are already there, Sophie’s arms around Parker’s waist as they stare at the flames.

“He could still be in there,” Parker insists when Nate gets out of the car. “We have to go in after him.”

“And lose you, too?” Sophie asks. “I don’t think so.”

“Wait,” Hardison says. “Eliot -- Eliot’s in there?”

They look for a moment, watching as dark smoke pours from the windows and flames lick up the walls.

“Well, maybe he got out,” Hardison says, but his voice sounds numb. “He is Eliot.”

“We have to go after him,” Parker says again, almost vehement now.

There’s a crunching sound, followed by a series of creaks before the structure shimmies and the roof caves in and the fire expands brilliantly, and the entire warehouse is consumed.

Hardison’s vain hopes fall silent. Parker’s willpower evaporates. Sophie closes her eyes.

Nate watches as it burns.

-o-

“No,” Hardison says, shaking his head. “No, no, no. This is not how it ends, all right? Everything’s Eliot’s survived? And he gets taken out in a bomb from a pissed off client? Uh uh, no way.”

“But there’s no way he’s still alive in there,” Parker says, somewhat helplessly as he gestures at the building.

“So he’s not in there,” Hardison says. “I ain’t believing it, not until I see his body. This is Eliot Spencer we’re talking about. I know the hinky crap he’s done, and there’s no way he goes down like this.”

“So where is he?” Parker demands. “Why hasn’t he contacted us?”

Sophie pulls away and turns on Nate, because Hardison and Parker are in denial, but Sophie -- she’s angry. “This,” she says, eyes dark and deadly as she cocks her head back toward the burning rubble. “This was your plan? To let Eliot blow up?”

Hardison and Parker stop at that, eyes fixed on Nate.

They’re looking to Nate for answers.

They’re holding him accountable.

And that -- almost more than anything -- threatens to break him.

This is why he never told Maggie that IYS denied Sam’s treatment. Because Nate’s good with responsibility until it falls apart, and he’s the best damn leader in the world until mistakes happen that he can’t avoid. He’d rather be the chum than be helpless, but this time, he’s both.

It’s his own fault, for not walking away when he had the chance. It’s his own fault, for letting himself be talked into this. It’s his fault for believing that he could control the parameters and that this would just be business.

It’s his fault.

Nate’s jaw works, and his chest clenches so hard that it physically hurts but he doesn’t let himself shy away from their eyes. “There was never going to be enough time to save everyone,” he tells them, so plain and so practical. And he doesn’t apologize, not with the words lodged in the back of his throat, thick enough to choke on.

Hardison lets out a hot breath, mouth falling open. Parker’s face goes deadly pale.

“You’re supposed to have a plan,” Sophie says, jabbing her finger at him. “That’s what you do. It’s your job.”

He can’t deny it; he can’t refute it. He can’t.

“How much time did you have?” Parker asks.

“Forty-five minutes,” Nate confesses. He looks at Parker, looks at Hardison. “I was given forty-five minutes and four locations around town. The whole thing was designed for me to fail at least one of you.”

He’s an honest man, so he gives them the honest truth.

It’s never felt more hollow.

“So why didn’t you call for help?” Sophie demands. “Even the police--”

“He had every site monitored,” Nate tells her, shrugging one shoulder numbly. “Anyone else shows up, and he’d detonate the bomb remotely.”

“Well, all we had to do was hack his feed--” Hardison starts.

“We?” Nate asks, because how he wishes that were true. How he wishes he’d had someone else, he’d had anyone else. This is his, though. This is his. “This time it was me. This time it was just me. And I knew it was a game -- I knew it was a game that was rigged -- but I had to play. I had to play because I couldn’t lose all of you.”

His heart is pounding in his chest, and his palms are sweating. He looks at them, what’s left of his team, and it’s not even a lie right now, but it will be.

He knows it will be.

Hardison, Parker, Sophie -- they’re alive and standing in front of him.

But he’s going to lose them -- just as painfully, just as irrevocably -- all the same.

“Come on,” he says, hoarsely as the sound of sirens starts in the distance. “We need to go.”

“We can’t leave him,” Parker says.

“We need to check for other signs of an exit,” Hardison says at the same time.


Sophie stares at him, though; another long, horrible moment. When she turns away, she nods to Parker and Hardison. “Come on,” she tells them, her voice soft. “If we get picked up by the police, we aren’t any good to Eliot.”

Hardison grinds his teeth together, and Parker purses her lips. But they follow Sophie, Hardison first and Parker a step behind. They don’t look at Nate as they pass.

When Sophie turns around, her face is composed.

“Come on,” she says with a nod toward the car. “I believe we still have work to do.”

-o-

In the car, Sophie takes the wheel. Nate sits next to her with in his hands in his lap while Parker and Hardison buckle in behind them.

“Any ideas where he’d go?” Sophie asks as she starts the engine. “Does he have any favorite haunts?”

“He doesn’t like routines, man,” Hardison says with a sigh. “Dude’s paranoid.”

“He also doesn’t like to be followed,” Parker adds. “Though that’s not really paranoid, since I do follow him from time to time.”

“His place?” Sophie wonders instead.

“He’d be pissed as hell if we showed up there,” Hardison says.

“He wouldn’t go to a hospital, would he?” Parker asks. “If he’s hurt?”

“The office,” Nate interjects, almost taking himself by surprise. The others look at him and he shrugs. “Eliot would know that the rest of the team was at risk. He’d try to regroup; he’d head back to the office.”

He’s not sure why he’s saying it, when he knows Eliot’s DNA is scattered in tiny pieces in the fire. The forensic team will be lucky to find enough left to identify him. Dental records, maybe.

They want to believe, though. They want to believe it so badly.

And it’s possible that they control him as much as he controls them.

Sophie inclines her head purposefully, both hands on the wheel. “The office it is.”

-o-

“Knobloch?” Hardison asks. “I still can’t get my head around that.”

“He went down so easy,” Parker says.

“The man was almost an amateur,” Hardison agrees. “If he hadn’t killed so many people and lied about it, I would almost say he wasn’t worth our effort.”

“Well, revenge is a powerful motivator,” Sophie says.

“But something this scale,” Hardison says. “He had to arrange for four separate attacks -- and you know how much manpower he had to put on Eliot just to get him down in the first place. And the bombs?”

“It’s not a leap for a man who knowingly poisoned entire communities,” Sophie says.

“Where did he get the funds, though?” Sophie asks. “We drained him.”

“Not his family, though,” Hardison says. “The kids stood to make a nice sum from the division of assets after the company sell off. Untouchable to him, unless his wife -- who filed for divorce -- gifted it to him.”

“I thought we had a plan,” Parker says, shaking her head. “What happened to our plan?”

Nate closes his eyes.

That’s the part they don’t understand.

The plans are always for the job, short-term and limited in scope. There’s a plan to bring justice, wrapped up with a neat and tidy little bow before moving on to the next client. It’s a series of plans, one to the next, but that’s not how life works. Life isn’t a series of chance encounters, and you never get to dictate the terms of your own impact. Life is relational, and there’s no way to predict what one person will do to another in the grander scheme of things.

It’s impossible to say what makes two men enemies, what makes two men friends. It’s a tossup sometimes, if someone is driven to revenge or breaks completely.

Sworn rivals.

Families of choice.

There’s never been a plan, not for the things that mattered. Not just today, but the last two years, the last five years.

There’s never been a plan.

-o-

When they get back to the office, Nate doesn’t want to go up. He wants to park at the bar and order himself a drink. Then another and another until he forgets that this day -- this year -- ever happened.

He doesn’t want to go with them when they go upstairs. He doesn’t want to hear Hardison calls Eliot’s name and get no reply. He doesn’t want Parker to search the upstairs -- in the closets and each of the offices -- just to find the place empty. He doesn’t want to feel Sophie turn on him, pity or condemnation.

He’s not sure which would be worse.

He wants them to believe, just a little while longer. He wants them to believe that Nate’s penchant for the impossible has panned out again. He wants them to think that he hasn’t lost his touch. He wants them to hold the idea that he’s invincible, because sometimes, when they look at him like that, he believes it himself.

He doesn’t want the tears, the accusations, the questions. He doesn’t want to wither under their eyes as another part of his life implodes and crumples into dust.

They’ll leave him, one after another. Parker will go first, just disappear without a trace. Hardison will follow, and he’ll do something big and stupid on his first solo venture, just because he can. Sophie will stay the longest because she thinks he needs her, but she’ll leave him in the end, too, because he’ll never admit she’s right.

That’s why he wants to start with the bottle.

He sure as hell knows it’ll end with it.

-o-

When they get to the door, no one wants to move. Hardison is a few feet back, and Parker has barely gotten off the elevator. Sophie stands poised, but her gaze goes down, as if she knows what she’s going to find inside.

That’s the problem with hope: it’s a tenuous thing to hold.

Nate understands it, though. He remembers going through every treatment with Sam, talking to every doctor and pursuing every lead. He remembers the surgeries and the chemotherapy and the radiation. The drug cocktails and alternative medicines and the number of candles he lit in desperate hope.

Hope will keep you going longer than anything.

But when it leaves you--

Well, that’s when you crash and burn.

Sighing, Nate walks past them, reaching for the handle. He started this.

The door opens.

He’s going to finish it.

-o-

Nate knows what he’s going to find.

He’s going to open the door to the same office he left this morning. Hardison’s orange soda will be in the fridge, and Eliot’s ridiculous stock of vegetables will be on the counter. Parker will have cereal in the cupboard, and Sophie will have a bottle of wine still chilled and waiting for dinner.

Hardison’s computers will be asleep, and Eliot’s book will still be on the end table. Parker’s latest locks will be in the basket by the couch, and the flowers Sophie picked last week will be wilting in the vase.

Just like he left it.

And still forever changed.

But there’s one thing he doesn’t account for, one thing that takes him by surprise. One thing that’s out of place in a way that Nate isn’t prepared for at all.

There, on the couch in the main room, eyes closed and bruised, is the last piece of the puzzle, the piece he’d thought he’d lost, the piece he’d thought he sacrificed to save the rest.

There, bloodied and breathing, is Eliot.

-o-

Nate can’t even move. He’s still staring blankly at the scene in front of him, trying to believe this is what it seems.

His mind flits through all the ways he should have seen this coming, but settles on the hard truth that he didn’t. Because it’s not just a job anymore, is it? It’s not just a team.

Nate’s not just going to find something.

No, he’s going to find everything.

The mistake isn’t failing to see all the outcomes -- that happens, that’s always going to happen because Nate’s not God -- but refusing to see the ones unfolding right in front of his face. This isn’t about losing a team; this is about realizing they’re his family.

They’re his everything.

And that defies logic. That flies in the face of all the practical rules he’s set up for how he operates this team. That goes against his reasons for doing this and his whole motivation for staying. This isn’t what he set out to find.

It’s better.

God knows he doesn’t deserve it -- Eliot should be dead, Parker should have cut and run, and Hardison should have one foot out the door -- but here it is. Sophie should have left him the first time he poured himself a drink, but here they are.

Dumbfounded, Nate’s still standing in the doorway when the others pass him by. One after another, they’re rushing to the couch. Hardison has Eliot by the shoulder, and Parker almost yells in his face. Sophie coaxes him into a sitting position until, between the three of them, Eliot’s upright with his eyelids fluttering.

It’s clear that the hitter is dazed, and his head topples forward momentarily while the team tries to rouse him.

“How do you feel?”

“How did you get out?”

“You aren’t going to hurl or nothing, are you?”

The rapid fire questions are more than Eliot can process, and Nate watches as the younger man shakes his head and press a palm to his face.

“Easy, easy, now,” Sophie soothes.

“Seriously, though,” Parker says. “How did you get out?”

“And how are you not in fifty million tiny pieces?” Hardison asks.

Eliot swallows with some difficulty and doesn’t move his hand. “Got loose with ten minutes left on the timer,” he says, voice thick and gruff. Nate can see the dried blood on his wrists from the obvious struggle against the rope. “Couldn’t disarm the bomb, but I was--”

He swallows for a moment as Sophie rubs a hand on his back.

Eliot slumps a bit, letting his hand fall into his lap. “I was worried about you guys,” he continues wearily. He manages to lift his gaze long enough to look at the others. “Came back here.”

“To pass out and bleed to death?” Hardison asks.

“Yeah, you probably need a hospital,” Parker says.

“To find out if you’re okay,” Eliot snaps, pressing a finger on the bridge of his nose. “I must have...passed out.”

It’s typical Eliot understatement, and most of the time they accept this with an affectionate roll of the eyes, but that fire burned hot, and Nate can still smell it in his nostrils.

“Must have passed out?” Hardison repeats incredulously. “You look like you’re still half passed out right now!”

“Seriously,” Parker says. “You need a hospital.”

“We cut this one a bit close,” Sophie says diplomatically. “Maybe an outside opinion wouldn’t be so bad.”

Eliot may be bruised and battered, but he’s still Eliot. Hell, that’s what makes him Eliot. “Had worse,” he says, but his protest is wholly unconvincing thanks to the light inflection in his voice and the vivid colors blooming on his cheek.

It’s entirely the wrong thing to say because this is the worst they’ve had as a team. This is the closest they’ve come, the most they’ve risked. All the times they’ve put things on the line, this is the time they thought they lost it. No one wants to say it -- not in so many words, not now -- but the fear isn’t in the losing. It’s that they all finally realized that they have something they don’t want to give up.

They’re gearing up for a fight -- Sophie with compassion, Hardison with hyperbole and Parker with flat out physical effort as Eliot tries to ground himself -- and Nate understands who he is in this.

He’s not the leader; he’s not the man in charge. He’s not the honest man or the black knight or anything in between. And this isn’t a team, and it’s sure as hell not a crew. What’s special about them isn’t what they do on the job, it’s who they are between clients. It’s who they are together.

Nate’s not the leader of that; there’s no way in hell. Not when it’s taken him this long to realize he’s a part of it.

But he gets it now.

He accepts it.

“We’ll watch him,” he says, the sudden of his own voice sounds strange even to him.

They look up at him, each and every one of them. Hardison looks blatantly hopeful again, like he’s wanted Nate to speak up this whole time. Parker inclines her head knowingly, as if taking implicit comfort in the familiar rhythm. Eliot regards him coolly, and it’s probably a sign of head trauma that he looks visibly grateful for the intervention.

Sophie’s the one who studies him, though, assessing with her dark eyes. They all know it, when he’s going off the rails, but she’s the only one who’s really understood why. It makes it easier for her to forgive him, and harder for her to let it go.

Nate clears his throat and steps forward. He digs his hands into his pockets, and isn’t sure whether he should sound like their father or their best friend.

“We’ll all stay here tonight and take turns watching him,” Nate says. “Any sign of complications, we’ll take him in immediately, no arguments. But until then, I think we can manage it.”

They’re watching him, expectant. They’re still waiting for his cues even if he’s the one following their lead.

“We’ll do it,” he says, giving a shrug. “Together.”

Eliot with his bruises, Parker when she’s poised to run, Hardison as he hinges on the edge of losing his cool. Even Sophie, who knows him better than he knows himself sometimes.

They could all argue with that.

But not one of them would.

-o-

They consider taking Eliot to one of the offices for some privacy, but the hitter is already mostly asleep by the time they come to any sort of conclusion, so Sophie arranges him back on the couch while Hardison reaches for a blanket. Parker pulls the blinds before sitting down, cross legged on the chair adjacent to the couch to stare at Eliot.

Hardison isn’t sure whether to fuss or not, but Sophie aptly takes control of that for him, tucking in the edges of the blankets before brushes Eliot’s hair out of his eyes.

“We really ought to clean these,” she murmurs, her fingers brushing against the damaged skin on his face.

There’s a lot of things they ought to do, but most of those ships have sailed already.

“Still seems like we should get an x-ray or something,” Hardison says. “Who knows what’s going on under all...that.”

He gestures vaguely to Eliot, but seems unwilling to think about it further.

“I’ve never seen him like this before,” Parker says, voice almost a whisper.

It could have been any one of them lying there, or all of them. Nate can only think how much better a vigil is at a bedside rather than a grave.

“Someone get some food,” Nate says, stepping forward. “Hardison, pull up what we know on Knobloch. I’ll keep track of the time so we wake Eliot every two hours.”

They’re watching him now, a little tentative but a little true.

Nate rubs his palms together and nods. “We’ve got some work to do.”

NEXT