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Leverage fic: The Till My Dying Day Job (1/1)

November 28th, 2015 (09:01 pm)

feeling: grateful

Title: The Till My Dying Day Job

Disclaimer: I do not own Leverage.

A/N: Fills my phobias square for hc_bingo. Set post series. No beta, so this is messy.

Summary: They were scared of nothing and everything all at the same time.


Eliot couldn't say for sure why, but he'd been raised to follow through on the things you promised. His sisters had accused him of lacking a sense of humor, and his father simply didn't believe him until he was already out the door. His sister weren't doing much laughing then, and that was fine with Eliot.

Because he'd told them, all of them, for as long as he could remember.

He was getting the hell out.

Out of that town, out of that county, out of that nowhere lifestyle. He was getting out of that family and he had no plans on looking back.

It was a promise.

And he'd kept it.

He'd made a promise to the United States government after that, and they were the type that didn't let you break your promises. In fact, they took Eliot's fortitude as a good thing and used it to their advantage. It was something, after all, to have a man who was willing and capable, answering the call wherever it took him. People asked him, sometimes, when they didn't know any better, why he had followed every order.

Eliot's answer was simple.

He made a promise to the United States government.

And he kept it.

It was his fault, then, for falling in love. He made a promise to Aimee, a promise with his heart, and he hadn't realized then that some promises just weren't made the same. Eliot was a man of singular tenacity, and when he committed, he committed. There wasn't any room for two promises, not when one said go and the other said stay.

Still, he may have told her three weeks, but the promise had never been that. He'd told her he'd come back, that he'd always come back. It was how he survived a Korean prison, how he'd bounced back from a game of Russian roulette. Because he'd made her a promise.

The one to the government may have taken priority sometimes.

But the one he'd made to her -- well, it had been his motivation to get through it all.

When he lost that, he lost more than he was willing to let on. It was easy, then, to make promises where he wanted. There was no girl calling him home, and there was no government to walk the line of his moral compass. Instead, there were nice paydays and easy marks, until Eliot made a promise to a man he shouldn't have.

It hadn't seemed like much, making a promise to Damian Moreau. And it had been easy, making one after another after another. Eliot had dirty hands but a clean mind, because everything was perfectly ordered about it all. It was promises kept, all of it. The body count was Eliot's way of sealing the deal.

Not that killing was ever right, but he'd killed in the name of a good cause for most of his adult life. Killing in the name of the bad cause wasn't all that different, not when a promise was involved.

Blood was blood, no matter why it was spilled. People bled red whether you were a patriot or a terrorist. The distinction, it didn't matter like people thought it did.

That was why Eliot promised himself he'd stop. That people didn't have to die, that he could do better than that. That was why he'd left Moreau, why he'd become an independent contractor, so he could work on his terms.

Nathan Ford had never asked for a promise, but Eliot knew his part in this. Someone had to take the hits to make this work.

And if his years of training and experience could be worth anything, this was it.

This was it.

By the time Sophie asked for the promise, asked him to keep them safe, it wasn't hard. Hell, it was the promise he'd made to himself all those years ago when he couldn't walk away. It was a promise that wasn't about the money; it wasn't about the job. It wasn't even about helping people who couldn't help themselves.

It was a promise to put himself last. It was a promise to use his skills for good. It was a promise to protect his family because they were damn good people who did damn good work.

It was a promise because he cared about them.

He loved them.

Till my dyin' day.

Best promise he'd ever made, hands down. He'd regretted the one he made to his family. He'd second guessed the one he made to his country. He wanted to take back the one he made to Aimee, and he sure as hell didn't want to remember the one he made to Moreau.

But this one? To Nate and Sophie? To Parker and Hardison.

It was the only one that matter

It was the one that was going to pan out until the end.

Damn it, though.

Sometimes they made it so hard.

If Hardison wasn't being a pain in the ass and if Parker wasn't be a crazy person, they were both throwing themselves into danger without even comprehending just how precarious their positions might be. They worked well without Nate and Sophie, but sometimes Eliot missed having more people to spread out the con.

It certainly helped spread the risk out.

Not that it would have made a difference.

The problem in working with good people was that they were good. Like, not just skilled, but good. Sometimes they stayed in play because it was the right thing to do, not because it was the safe thing.

This was why, Eliot reminded himself, Hardison had willingly gotten in a car with Russian mobsters to drive to a remote location.

All they needed was a little time left for Parker to finish the heist, which made Hardison the bait.

They'd come a long way since they started it. Hardison had refused to play the bait on their first mission, and now here he was, playing it for all he was worth.

Because he trusted that Eliot was on his way.

He trusted Eliot would be able to beat six armed and angry Russians.

He trusted that Eliot wouldn't let him down.

He trusted Eliot.

He got to the warehouse just as Parker's voice crackled over the comms.

"I got it," she said breathlessly. "Hardison?"

"I'm in position now," Eliot muttered.

"That's good, that's good," Hardison said. "Because I really would like not to die today."

"Not on my watch," Eliot growled, squaring himself to kick in the door.

"I'll be five minutes, tops," Parker informed them.

"By the way," Eliot said, flexing his fists. "Duck."

"Wait, what--" Hardison started, but Eliot didn't hear him finish.

Instead, he was kicking down the door.

It was a bold entry point -- a little over the top, to be honest -- but that was the point. With armed Russians, surprise was his only advantage, not because it would really slow them down.

But because it would draw their fire away from Hardison.

And that was the opening Eliot needed.

He charged, taking out the first man with a quick punch that he didn't even see coming. The second one got off a shot, but Eliot yanked his arm and drove his head into his knee. Throwing him to the ground, Eliot rounded on the third, connecting with an elbow that shattered his nose. The fourth fired again, but Eliot went low, bowling him over into the fifth man.

The impact was hard, but not hard enough, and the two on one scuffle that ensued was fast and messy. Eliot took a few hits before he managed to smash one guy's head against the cement. The fifth required a volley of straight on punches before he slumped back uselessly.

Getting to his feet, Eliot spit blood before bringing himself to the last man.

He wasn't any bigger than the rest, but he was smirking.

Probably because he thought the gun to Hardison's head would make a difference to him.

Eliot smirked back.

He was wrong.

The only thing that the gun to Hardison's head would do would be to make Eliot hit harder.

Hardison swallowed convulsively.

Eliot rolled his shoulders.

A lot harder.

That was the thing with holding guns to people's head. It was always intended as leverage. Most of the time, people didn't intend to shoot. If they did, they would have done it already.

All Eliot had to do was call the bluff.


As Eliot charged, the man panicked, gun wavering for a split second before Eliot's fist pummeled his face. The man oofed, falling backward enough to let Hardison scramble free and Eliot followed up. He kicked the man in the chin, flipping him onto his back before landing one, two, three punches to the face.

The man was unconscious on the ground.

Eliot sneered.

And punched once more for good measure.

That was when he heard it, though.

The sound of a safety clicked off, a bullet in the barrel.

The smooth, seamless motion of a bullet about to be fired

No warnings; no threats.

The kind of shot meant to kill.

Eliot was the dangerous target, but he wasn't the easy one. These men, they were greedy and ambitious and deadly, but they weren't particularly brave.

They wouldn't take on the dangerous target.

Not when there was an easy one.

Standing right there.

There wasn't time to stop the shot.

But there was time to stop it from hitting its target.

By giving it a new one.

Eliot was up, flying across the floor. He saw the whites of Hardison's eyes as they collided, sprawling to the ground. Beneath him, Hardison was gaping but fine, and that was all Eliot needed to see before he got back to his feet and turned toward the man with the gun.

It was the second guy, if Eliot remembered correctly, bleeding down the side of his face with his expression twisted in rage. Eliot matched him and raised the ante, growling as he threw himself him on the man, trusting nothing more than blind speed to beat out a second shot.

He started punching and didn't stop until the man was bloodied on the ground before him.

Righting himself, Eliot looked back at Hardison, who was standing on shaky feet.

"Damn, Eliot," he said. "That never gets less scary."

Eliot exhaled, feeling the tension unfurl in his chest.

"But, you know, if you feel like punching them a few more times, I wouldn't complain," Hardison said. "Just for the record."

Eliot inhaled, forcing back the crippling anxiety.

He'd kept his promise.

He'd kept them safe.

Until his dying day.

He staggered, pain blossoming in his chest and spreading through his gut. His vision blurred and his breathing caught, and as the blood rushed to his head, he realized that something was wrong.

Blinking, he looked down, lifting back his jacket to look at the growing stain of blood from a gunshot wound to his chest.

"Wait, are you--" Hardison started, taking a step closer. "Eliot?"

It was too much now, and Eliot's knees gave way, sending him crashing toward the floor. His ears started to ring as Hardison scrambled to him, just barely catching him as they both landed on the cement in a tangle.

Hardison jostled him, slipping his hand under his jacket and pulling it away, covered in blood.

The younger man cursed.

"Eliot," he said. "Damn it. Parker, Eliot's hit. Eliot's hit."

Parker's voice echoed in his ear. "Almost there--"

Hardison pressed his hand down, stretching his long fingers over the wound as he tried to hoist Eliot closer. "Just hang on, man. Hang on."

It was a promise Eliot couldn't give, though.

No, he'd already made a promise.

To keep them safe.

There could only be one promise.

"Told you," he managed to say, the bitter taste of blood filling the back of his throat. "Till my dying day."

"No," Hardison said. "Eliot, no."

He choked a little, swallowing back with almost all the energy he had left. He was shaking now, tremors ripping through his body as the pain started to build again. "Just didn't think," he said haltingly, vision going gray around the edges as he looked up at Hardison. "Just didn't think it'd be so soon."

He exhaled and felt his heartbeat stagger.

Hardison yelled.

Eliot passed out with no regrets.

Because for once, it was a promise worth keeping.


This was bad.

No, this was bad.

This was really bad, this was horrible, awful, ridiculous and impossible. This was the worst case scenario, this was things gone to hell in a freakin’ handbasket.

This was…

Hardison felt his eyes burn, his chest clenching tight. Eliot’s blood was everywhere, and Hardison could actually feel the pulse of his heart against his hand.

Like, really.

And it was getting slower.

Eliot was dying.

This wasn’t just bad, this was impossible. This sort of thing? Did not happen, not to them, not ever. No, no, no, no.

“Parker, I need you here, like, yesterday--

“I’m almost there--” Parker’s voice hissed in his ear.

“Eliot -- he’s,” Hardison tried, his shaking fingers struggling to keep pressure on the wound. Eliot’s mass was heavy on top of him, and the blood was hot and wet. “Eliot--”

He didn’t know what to say. Hell, he didn’t know what to do. This had been your run-of-the-mill mission, by the textbook. They’d been good, the three of them. They’d been better than good. Sure, they missed Nate and Sophie, but truth was? They hadn’t needed them. Hardison kept tabs on them of course, sent them glib postcards just because, but they hadn’t needed them.

Hacker, hitter, thief.

Made it work.

Hardison thought he might need them now. He thought he might need Sophie’s grace under pressure or Nate’s ability to make a plan out of nothing.

What was Hardison doing here anywhere? Trying to keep someone’s blood from pouring out of their body?

He was a hacker. Give him a laptop or a smartphone, and there wasn’t nothing he couldn’t do. He could steal top secret blueprints; he could bypass top tier security systems; he could make an identity out of nothing; he could trace money through fifteen shell companies, because damn, he was that good.

But this?


Hardison was out of his damn league, and Eliot was going to die because of it.

Idiot, jumped in front of a bullet.

Idiot, jumped in front of a bullet….for Hardison.

That nearly choked him, and now his eyes were burning with unshed tears. Because this wasn’t incidental damage. This was Eliot, making a choice. This was Eliot, living up to his promise.

This was Eliot.

Taking the bullet so Hardison wouldn’t have to.

That was a terrifying thing, because what did you do with that? What did you do with the reality that someone would willingly die for you? How could be grateful for that? How could you not?

He had never, not in his life, hated someone more than he hated Eliot right then.

Of course, he had also never loved someone like he loved Eliot now.

“You stupid bastard,” Hardison grunted, jostling Eliot so his face was turned toward his. His eyes stayed closed, though; face expressionless. Eliot should have been freaking out, yelling at Hardison for holding him like this. “Stupid--”

He was startled by the sound of tires screeching, and then -- the wall exploded.

Exploded, maybe not.

But burst into pieces in a display of utter and total destruction?

Yes, that.

Hardison ducked over Eliot instinctively, cradling him closer while the wood flew and crates scattered. He didn’t look up until he heard the sound of brakes and a car door opening.

“What happened?” Parker demanded, crossing the distance to them.

Hardison looked up in disbelief. “Damn, girl--”

She went to her knees, trying to get a better look. “You said Eliot was down.”

“Sure, but you could have run over us!” Hardison objected.

“I had your tracking beacon on!” she snapped.

“Yeah, and those things have a margin for error!” Hardison said.

“Oh,” Parker said, pausing while she looked at the proximity of the van. “Well, tell me that in advance next time!”

“Don’t plow through walls next time!” Hardison said.

“Then Eliot shouldn’t get shot!”

Her voice pitched hard, and then both fell silent. Eliot’s blood was still slick against his fingers, and Parker looked down again, more reticent this time.

“How bad?” she asked, her voice dropping.

“I’m not a doctor,” Hardison said grimly. “But the blood--”

“That’s a lot of blood,” Parker agreed. She hesitated, considering -- just for a moment. She reached her fingers down, lifting up his chin. “You have the right aliases for a hospital?”

“Girl, I have the right aliases for everything,” he said.

“Good,” she said with a firm, authoritative nod. “Let’s get him up.”

She reached down to help him up, and Hardison was only too happy to share the burden. He was still barely keeping it together -- and even though he was pretty sure Parker loved him unconditionally, he didn’t want to take the chance of breaking down like a little kid.

With Parker’s help, they were able to maneuver Eliot’s dead weight up between them, and Hardison did what he could to brace Eliot’s upper body as they dragged him toward the van. Parker eased her way seamlessly, holding Eliot with one hand while opening the back door with the other. Then, she hopped inside, reaching down to pull him up.

Through it all, Eliot was pliant.

It was unsettling, that was what it was. Not just the amount of blood or the lack of color in his face. The fact that he didn’t resist.

He just kept taking the hits.

That was Eliot, after all.

Anything at all for the team.

Forcing himself to exhale, Hardison climbed in, positioning himself on the floor next to Eliot and reaching for one of the spare blankets they kept in the back of the van.

“What happened anyway?” Parker said while they arranged Eliot more comfortably on the ground.

“He jumped in front of a bullet,” Hardison muttered, balling the blanket into a ball and pressing it down on top of the still bleeding wound.

Parker made a face. “That doesn’t sound like Eliot.”

Hardison had to grit his teeth, ignoring the warmth of the blood as it well up through the fabric. “For me,” he clarified. “He jumped in front of a bullet for me.”

Parker’s face paled, her eyes on Eliot. “Oh. Well,” she said, haltingly for a moment. “That sounds like him.”

“Yeah,” Hardison agreed.

This time, Parker hedged. “You want me to get this?” she asked, voice quieter now. “You drive?”

Hardison met her gaze, and he could see the compassion there. This wasn’t an idle offer, and it wasn’t a flippant one. This wasn’t because she thought he wasn’t capable or that she wanted to control things. Of all the things Parker had improved at during their time working together, this was the most exceptional.

She knew he was scared.

Hell, she knew he was ready to crap his pants, he was so scared.

More than that, she was willing to help with that. She didn’t want him to be scared, because she cared about him. She loved him.

And they both loved Eliot.

Hardison looked down again, the resolve solidifying in his gut. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “No, I’ve got to see him through this.”

Parker nodded. Because she was compassion, but she was also a boss. Her take-charge attitude was damn sexy, but this wasn’t the time for that. “Okay,” she said, slipping her way out the back. “Keep him alive.”

“I’ll do what I can,” he said, trying to sound confident. “Just, uh. Drive fast, okay?”

Parker almost smiled as she shut the door.

That was good, Hardison knew. It was even better when the van started moving, faster than the speed limit probably allowed. Parker had her job to do.

Hardison was going to do his.

And Eliot…

Well, Eliot had done his job, hadn’t he? That was the thing about all of this. Eliot was the hitter; he was the protector. He’d promised Nate and Sophie that he’d watch after them.

But who was going to look after Eliot?

Who was going to protect him when it counted?

They took it for granted. Hell, they treated it like a punchline.

Anyone want my job? I get punched and kicked.

I have a dog for that.

They laughed about it.

No one was laughing now.

No, now Eliot was bleeding out on the floor of Lucille 7.2, and Hardison was pressing down like somehow, maybe, it might make a difference. Eliot’s face was losing all its color, and his breathing was growing weak and shallow. He’d spent years defending them, never letting his guard down.

And now, Eliot didn’t have any defenses left.

Sprawled out and limp, expressionless and weak.

This wasn’t Eliot. This wasn’t the strong, competitive, angry man who traded barbs with Hardison. This wasn’t the proud man who’d been nervous to sing in front of people. This wasn’t the belligerent perfectionist who had fought Hardison about every item on the menu of the brewpub.

It couldn’t be.

“See what you did?” Hardison asked, voice cutting sharply with emotion. “Made a mess, that’s what you did.”

The van rocked, and Eliot’s head lolled to the side.

Hardison kept his knees steady, his arms straight. “I know you probably think it was all heroic back there,” Hardison chided. “But what happens now? What if you go and kick it? What then, man?”

What then?

Hardison didn’t have any backup plans for that. He didn’t have any computer programs or hacks that could even touch that.

“This doesn’t work without the three of us,” Hardison babbled, his voice getting thin now. “Hacker, hitter, thief. It’s like the holy trinity of crime, man. The trifecta of justice. Without you…”

Hardison didn’t know how to finish.

He didn’t want to finish.

Because, what was this without Eliot? Who would they be? Would the team even work?

Did he even want it to work?

“It’s not just about the team, man,” Hardison said, ignoring the sound of blaring horns from outside. “It’s...us, you know? You’re more than a hitter.”

His eyes locked on Eliot’s face, wishing he understood.

“You’re so much more,” Hardison managed to say.

Partner, teammate, friend, family.

Hardison inhaled sharply, even as his cheeks felt wet.

“And that is something you will learn,” he said, with as much vehemence as he could muster when he was terrified. “Once we get out of this mess you made.”

If, Hardison refused to think.

Because Hardison talked big, and he made a fuss about things. He complained about having asthma and allergies, and boasted about his ability to do anything.

But the thing that scared him? More than anything else?

Was right here.

The blood on his hands, the last gasps of Eliot’s breath.

The fading beats of his heart.

You can’t con death, after all.

Hardison just hoped, with all his might, that they could beat it back for Eliot’s sake.

The van screeched to a halt, and Hardison closed his eyes with a silent prayer.

For all their sakes.


It had been a long couple of days.

Actually, it had been a long week, but Parker didn’t want to be picky about these things. The job was always going to be the job, and spending a week to take down another player in the black book was to be expected. This one had had its ups and down, naturally, but Parker had felt pretty good about the outcome.

Until, of course, she heard the gunshot over the comms.

That was when she got it, why Nate had made her the mastermind.

That was when she got it.

Because, for a split second, Parker wanted to panic. She wanted to react, to go off book, to run like hell to her teammates before it was too late.

But she couldn’t.

No, because Parker had already considered this.

In the back of her mind, in her subconscious that she didn’t want to acknowledge, this had always been a possibility. This had always been one of her contingencies. Hardison, he was good at what he did, but he was so set on his own abilities that he rarely entertained the possibility of his failures.

And Eliot...he’d never wanted to play leader. He was too likely to start getting himself hurt to be of any use with the big picture.

That was why they needed Parker.

It was her call, her decision, her lead.

She’d been the one to put them in that situation.

She’d be the one to get them out.

After that, everything had been perfunctory. Get to location, assess Eliot, transport to nearest medical facility. She knew the route by heart already -- she’d memorized it over a week ago -- and they had the documentation -- in the glove box, just to be safe.

And she’d been the one to talk to the doctor; she’d been the one to grift with the nurses. She’d been the one to get Hardison orange soda and gummy frogs while they wait long hours through the night. She’d been the one to squeeze Hardison’s hand when the doctor came out, tired and bloody, and told them that Eliot was still alive.

It was Parker who had talked the nurses into letting them see Eliot early. It was Parker who had assured Hardison that the tubes and wires weren’t as bad as they looked. It was Parker who had stood close to Hardison while he shuffled his feet by Eliot’s bedside, racked with guilt and paralyzed with fear.

Fear. Parker didn’t always understand fear, not like most people. She wasn’t scared of heights or tight places.

She was a little scared of this, though.

Eliot had made good progress throughout the morning, and by the midday, he’d been moved to the ICU out of recovery. Here, they had extubated him and predicted that he’d sleep for another day or two while the sedation wore off and his body coped with the severity of his injuries.

There’d been a time, maybe, when Parker would have laughed at them. As if Eliot Spencer was anything less than invincible.

That time, however, so no longer now. And it wasn’t just because Eliot had had half his blood volume replaced and a hole stitched up in his lung.

No, it was because Parker didn’t have the luxury anymore. She didn’t have the ability to believe in simple absolutes. Her job was to see everything, and put the pieces together for the best possible outcome, fully accepting that sometimes best possible was not the one you really wanted at all.

Hard as it was watching Eliot lie there, it was just as hard to watch Hardison torture himself. After several hours in the ICU ward, Parker had sent him home to clean himself up and rest. He’d protested -- citing loyalty to Eliot -- which was, of course, the worst possible defense because it was so easy to use against him.

One question -- do you think Eliot would want you to do this to yourself -- and Hardison had ducked his head and left, insisting that she call him if anything -- and he meant anything -- changed.

Parker sighed.

It had been a very long couple of days.

The worst of it was that it wasn’t over. Not even close. She’d read Eliot’s charts, and although his vitals were stabilizing, the extent of the injuries were notable. He had a long recovery ahead of him, which would be difficult for all of them. It would put them off the job, strain their resources and test the entire balance of their little team.

Not that she doubted that Eliot could do it -- that they all could do it -- but she knew it would be the most challenging thing they’d faced yet. Just when they thought they’d endured everything together, something new always came up.

Parker would make sure they came out on the other side. Not unscathed, but together.

That was another reason Parker had taken her place as the mastermind of their trio. She could see things that Hardison couldn’t -- and she was willing to tackle those things when Eliot wouldn’t.

She knew what motivated people, and she was willing to use that proactively.

And for the first time, she gets Eliot.

That made it sound like a huge revelation, or that she’d been oblivious of Eliot for the last six years. She’d gotten to know Eliot well in their time as teammates -- better than well. When they called each other family, that meant something.

It meant everything.

And Eliot, for all his gruffness, wasn’t as closed off as he wanted people to think. He had strange sensibilities and sometimes unexpected vulnerabilities. She knew his likes and dislikes, his strengths and weaknesses. She knew the things he was capable of, and the things he didn’t want to admit to. She knew the things he didn’t want to talk about, the things he wouldn’t quite confess to. She knew his fears, his guilt, his humanity.

Which was what made this twist of understanding all the more poignant for her.

See, Eliot wasn’t just a hitter. No, they all knew he was protective of his own, almost to a fault. There was a time when Eliot knew how to cut and run, but they were long past that. Eliot had let himself adhere to this team as family, and that commitment was something he made wholeheartedly.

You only get to make that promise once, he’d said.

This was what Eliot had needed, more than anything. Not a cause to die for but a family to live for. This wasn’t about redemption exactly -- Parker suspected Eliot didn’t believe in it -- but it was about finding something better.

Something worthwhile.

For all the bad Eliot had done in his life, he was more than ready to commit to something good.

It gave him a certain amount of peace. Closure, even. This past year, the three of them together -- it was happy as Parker had ever seen him.

That, right there, was the problem that brought them here.

Eliot didn’t really know how to be happy. Eliot didn’t believe he actually deserved to be happy. He believed in embracing life and living each moment to its fullest, but he never believed himself to be entitled to any of it.

That was why he was willing to throw himself in harm’s way for his friends.

Because Eliot made a promise.

Because Eliot protected his own.

Because Eliot believed that Parker and Hardison were worth it.

Because Eliot thought that he wasn’t.

It wasn’t a lack of self esteem or a subtle form of emotional masochism.

But it was a problem.

One that Parker intended to fix.

With that in mind, Parker sat.

And waited.

Eye intent on Eliot, she did not budge.

Would not budge.

Several hours later, when Eliot started to stir, the nurse said it was probably just the sedatives wearing off and suggested it’d be another 12 hours before he woke up.

Parker, who had grown emotionally in the last year, smiled politely instead of stabbing her with an empty syringe for using meaningless platitudes.

That aside, she was not surprised when Eliot woke up no more than an hour later. He looked confused and disoriented, studying the ceiling intently for a long moment before drifting his gaze over his body and the medical equipment.

Then, he looked at Parker.

And scowled.

“You been sittin’ there this whole time?” he croaked, his southern drawl sounding even worse after the prolonged period of unconscious and the earlier intubation.

She nodded. “You’ve only been out for a day,” she reported. “Before that, I was in the waiting room with Hardison.”

Tired as he was, Eliot’s eyes widened. “Hardison--”

“Is fine,” she assured him, because she knew what he was thinking -- what he was fearing. “Freaked out and terrified, but fine. I sent him home for a while. His last text said he was just going to lie down for a minute, but since that was, like, five hours ago, I think he fell asleep.”

Eliot’s scowl deepened again. She figured he was probably entitled to that, given the amount of drugs he was on at the moment. She would have to ask the doctor about giving Eliot on morphine. Morphine made people happy. She doubted it would on Eliot, but seeing him high as a kite might be fun.

And not the point.

“You want to know what happened?” she asked.

He exhaled heavily, eyes skittering over the medical equipment again. “Am I missing any organs?”

“No, all organs are still in place,” she reported.

“Lost my spleen years ago,” Eliot murmured.

Parker knitted her brows together, wondering what a spleen actually did. “That’s….okay?”

He focused on breathing again, wincing as he took a deep breath. “Lung damage?”

That was an impressive self diagnosis. “You knew that from taking a deep breath?”

“It’s a very distinctive--” he started, but shook his head. “Nevermind. Hardison -- he’s really okay?”

She nodded.

“He was going to take a bullet back there,” Eliot said. “And I thought--”

He faltered with a raspy sigh. He was trying not to show it, but Eliot was drugged up and barely conscious. And he wasn’t as nearly as impenetrable as he wanted people to think.

Parker hedged. “And you thought you’d beat him to it?”

At that, Eliot’s defenses flared. “I did my job.”

“Your job,” Parker said purposefully, giving him a long, hard look. “Is to make sure we all get out of alive.”

“You said Hardison was fine.”

All of us,” she reiterated with emphasis.

Even on the drugs, Eliot understood the insinuation. He wet his lips with another trembling breath. “My job is to protect you,” he said, managing more inflection that she would have imagined for someone who had just endured major surgery. “So you can do your job.”

He got it.

And he didn’t get it at all.

Parker sighed. “You’re more than a hitter, Eliot.”

To this, he had no reply. His pale face was scrunched with uncertainty, hedged with anxiety. She almost wanted to stop -- he was tired and weak, and this probably wasn’t fair -- but that was exactly why she was going to keep at it. She’d never get a chance like now, when he might just be vulnerable enough to have this conversation.

“This isn’t about our jobs, though,” she said, tilting her head. “This is about the fact that you think your life is less valuable.”

He stiffened.

Not a lot.


Parker’s found it, the underlying motivation, pulsing like a raw nerve.

And just like Nate would have before her, she pressed it.

“You think, because of what you’ve done, that you are expendable,” she said, carefully and calculated. Almost cruel from the outside.

He actually flinched, his jaw tightening. This was a lot to put on him, especially now, but it had to be now. Because if not now, then it might not be ever, and Parker wasn’t okay with at. This was what the team needed.

This was what Eliot needed.

“Do you think that if you die, somehow it’ll be justice for the lives you’ve taken?” she asked, unrelenting. “Do you think that somehow it would balance out the bad you’ve done?”

“I’ve done a lot of bad things,” he said, voice taut, guarded.

“And a lot of good things,” Parker countered.

“None of that -- none of it changes what I’ve done,” he said haltingly. “I mean, do you think it matters? To the people -- all those people whose lives I’ve ruined? The families I’ve torn apart? The lives I’ve cut short? Do you think that anything I can do will make it right for them?”

Parker waited. The thing with a con was to let the mark do the hard part.

The same thing was true for family sometimes.

His expression faltered. “Do you think they care that I found my conscience ten years too late?”

“Maybe you’re right,” she said, struggling to maintain her own composure. She hated this; she hated being here, seeing him like this. She hated that she had to tell him. “Maybe nothing you can do with your life will make it better for them. But your death sure as hell won’t help either.”

He shrugged one shoulder feebly. “If it gives them peace…”

She shook her head, her resistance flaring. It was impossible to see him like this: resigned. Eliot didn’t quit -- he never quit -- but this was the worst type of surrender, no matter how noble. “No one is innocent, Eliot,” she said. “No one is the sum of their mistakes. You deserve to be happy, too.”

“Do I?”

It was a simple question.

A terrible question.

One of doubt, regret, fear.

He was scared that he already knew the answer.

Eliot Spencer was scared of nothing and everything all at the same time.

She would give it the only answer she could. Not for Eliot’s sake, but because it was true. “Yes.”

He scoffed weakly. “And you’re so sure?”

“Yes,” she said, even more adamant now.

He nearly laughed this time. “How?” he said, a slight waver in his tone. “How do I deserve anything?”

“Because you did bad things,” she said. “And then you realized they were bad things and did better things. You changed. Anyone can be good or bad. But not many can actually change.

Eliot stared, face locked and impassive, even as turmoil swarmed in his eyes. Forgiveness was a hard, hard thing.

Even more so when you had to forgive yourself.

She could never be sure, not for her own sake.

But for her team’s?

Hell, yes.

“Your death, it won’t bring them peace,” she said. “If they can’t find it, then your death won’t help. But your life, Eliot. It can help so many more. It already has. I mean, look at Hardison. Look at me.

He shook his head. “That’s all you--”

“No, it’s not,” she said. “It’s all of us, together. Which is why it’s not okay.

His breathing is ragged now, eyes red. “There weren’t a lot of options back there,” he said. “If it comes down to Hardison or me…”

“I know,” she said. “But I also need to know that you understand that this is a two-way thing.”

“Two-way?” he asked.

“We all share the same greatest fear,” she said. “Losing one of the team -- that’s the worst case scenario for everyone. Which is why we all pull our weight. And why I need to know that you don’t think you’re expendable. Because if I have a martyr on this team, then I’m pulling the plug.”

Her voice was even, to the point. Harsh without being mean. It wasn’t quite a bluff, but it was certainly an ultimatum she hope she didn’t have to fulfill. Because being the mastermind didn’t just mean you had to use people.

It meant you had to know when to stop.

Nate had never been great at that.

Parker would be better.

Even if it meant giving up everything.

“So I need to know,” she said firmly. “That jumping in front of that bullet was a last resort.”

He hesitated, blinking once. He struggled for a moment, looking for the words. “Next time,” he promised. “Next time it will be.”

It wasn’t the exact answer she wanted, but it was pretty close.

In the long weeks ahead, they could work on that.

of them.

“Good,” she said resolutely. “Because your job is to protect us, and our job is to protect you.”

His eyebrows arched. “You protect me?”

She nodded without hesitation. “Until my dying day.”

At this, he managed a small smile. “Well, let’s not make that any time soon, okay?”

“Says the man with a gunshot wound,” she replied.

Now his smile widened, crinkling around his eyes. “Point taken.”

Parker smiled back. “Now, we both need to talk to Hardison about the importance of not getting shot at in the first place.”

“I think you’ve got that covered,” he murmured tiredly.

“Really, you don’t think it was too heavy handed?” she asked.

“Oh, it was heavy handed,” he said. “Which is why I think it’ll work.”

She nodded, feeling much more content. Then, it was her turn to hesitate. “Thanks, by the way.”

He looked confused. “For?”

“For saving Hardison,” she said. “I mean, I would never want you -- I mean, you should never--”

“I get it, Parker,” he said softly.

“Just thank you,” she said. “You did save his life.”

“Well, you saved mine,” he said. “Two-way street.”

“I drove you to the hospital, I don’t think--”

“That’s not what I meant,” Eliot drawled.

Parker’s eyes widened, just a little.

She understood.

They all had the same fear, but they also had the same triumph.

And it was all because of one another.

She leaned forward, putting her hand on his forearm for the first time. “You better rest,” she advised.

He exhaled sleepily. “Long recovery ahead?”

“Well, yeah,” she said. “And Hardison will be here soon.”

Eliot made a face.

Parker grinned. “As a warning: be ready for hugs.”

He wrinkled his nose. “I’d prefer the bullet, thank you.”

Still grinning, she patted his arm. “Like I said, get your rest.”

They would all need it.

They would all succeed -- or they would all fail -- together.

That was terrifying, sure.

And really damn exciting.