Today, two chapters at once. Enjoy. :)
I forgot to thank Maddie Meraki for betaing this - she did a wonderful job. Thanks hon. (check her story 'The Leaving Nate Job'; you won't regret it)
"They might be vampires."
"No, Parker. Vampires wouldn't waste all that blood in the bathtub."
Parker didn't seem convinced in spite of Nate's calm words. The thief looked pretty shaken from what she had seen. Even Sophie was still pale.
Eliot, however, had eyes only for Hardison and Nate, but especially Hardison. They all waited for the hacker to pour out something useful, but he typed and typed, and no words came.
"A family of serial killers who target people who drive a red Toyota Camry?" Parker tried again.
This time there was a significant pause before Nate said, "No, Parker, that's not very likely."
"Well..." Hardison cleared his throat. "For now, I have no other explanation. That last Toyota – thanks Parker for a good shot of a license plate – was a rent-a-car. The credit card leads to a person who is clearly made up, an alias, so that's a dead end."
"So, our missing, dark haired bearded man had a false identity," said Nate. "And that tells us nothing about the McTavishes and their strange business, it only adds more complications to it."
"A time portal?"
Nate sighed. "No, Parker."
"A family of cannibals luring their victims into their cute little house to eat them? You have to admit that shop is cute. It's small in front, with that red tile roof – oh, oh, that reminds me, I didn't have the chance to check that attic, who knows what they have there below the wooden beams – maybe they dry their meat up there, the old fashioned way? And the cute little shop is huge behind it, a real lair of-"
Hardison stroked a few more keys, then pushed his laptop away and leaned back in his chair. "The McTavish family does not exist," he said. "Oh, they have everything covered for the last few years, but that's the kind of a job any decent hacker could've done in two days. Nothing fancy about it – just a standard false identity package on the Dark Net, not a deluxe edition."
"Are they a family at all?" asked Sophie. "There was something strange in their behavior on that recording…"
"I think they are," Eliot said. "Family resemblance is clear. What did you see?"
She stood up and went closer to the screens, where the frozen surveillance video showed all of them surrounding Eliot. "They are supposed to be aggressive bullies, right? But their body language doesn't say that. There's nothing instinctively violent in their movement and postures. They tensed only when you were rude to their sister. Before that, though you demolished their store, they weren't hostile."
"We'll see how they behave tonight in McRory's, when they aren't with their customers," Nate said.
For a few moments, they all watched the screens and people on them, all of them deep in thought. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Eliot noticed that Nate tilted his head a little, still looking at the family.
"Hardison," Nate said. "How long it would take you to hack into Wellford & Sons security, and access the camera on the bank's front door?"
"A couple of hours."
"Do it. Maybe we're concentrating on the wrong thing. Maybe we need to see that missing man. The bank camera probably caught him coming and entering the store."
Nate's head tilt was a well-known sign of a chain reaction starting in his mind. Eliot noticed the whole Team had picked up on that – some of them not being aware they noticed it AKA Parker, who was frowning and probably coming up with demons as a next solution – and all three of them relaxed a bit. After all, status quo was never in Nate's job description.
"And what now?" Eliot asked. "Are we doing something, or…?"
"Now the two of us are going for a walk." Nate smiled. He didn't look at him while saying that – his bright eyes, lit from the inside, never left the screens.
It wasn't often that they had a case so close to their base. Nate still held his cup of coffee as they walked down the street, to the end of the block and to the McTavish workshop. He could really get used to this.
He glanced sideways, at Eliot. The hitter hadn't said a word since they left.
"Hardison showed us a recording with Florence and Jethro walking in the park," Nate said. "She seems fine. Thought you might want to know that."
Eliot slowly turned toward him; calm, uninterested eyes met with his. "Yeah, good to know. Good idea."
Nate held his gaze. Eliot didn't divert his eyes, meeting his gaze squarely, but Nate knew him. He could almost feel the hitter's painful inward twitch.
"You seem fine, too," Nate continued.
Eliot shot a lazy smile in his direction. "Define fine."
"Did you bring me here just to poke at me, or are we actually doing something?"
Nate motioned for him to continue walking. "We have nothing to do. So, yes, you're here because if I asked you this back home, I would have had to fight three different sabotaging maneuvers. Don't have time for that."
"If you give me something to do, I'll do it. Is that enough for you?"
"You could always do that. Even while dying. What I really want to know," he paused, waited until Eliot looked at him, then continued, "is how do you feel… emotionally?"
No self-control could hide Eliot's twitch now. The hitter stopped mid-step, and anger quickly covered all the pain in his eyes.
"That was low, Nate."
Yes, it was. Even Nate could hear how Florence had said it the first time, every accent in the sentence; he knew it resonated in Eliot's mind much more vividly.
"Insensitive bastard is my job description, remember?"
"All my baggage is neatly packed in sealed boxes and put away. Packing was nasty and it took a long time, but you already knew that. I left all the boxes behind when I came back. It's done. Finished. I'm okay."
Nate said nothing, only nodded. It wasn't important to him what Eliot would say; rather how he would say it. There was too much calm in his voice for Nate's liking, but he hoped Eliot's coping mechanisms would fade with time.
They continued their slow walk and stopped at the corner.
The street was busy, and there were a lot of parked cars, so they could watch the McTavish Barrel shop without being noticed.
"It's useful to take a look until Hardison gets us the bank camera recording," Nate said.
Eliot leaned on the wall and crossed his arms. Nate sipped his coffee at a snail's pace. It was a cold day, and a warm beverage came in handy.
They didn't have to wait for long.
Two of the brothers came out the store to smoke.
"The same ones who attacked Hardison," Nate said. "One's Callum. It seems they have a standard patrol – two in front while the others are busy. What do you think?"
Eliot studied the two guys for a moment. "No special training. Well-built and fast, but not very coordinated. Amateurs. Callum is a bull man."
"The kind of guy who would lower his head and charge at you to kick you off balance, giving the others time to finish you while you're down."
"And what do you do then?"
"Step aside and let him pass, of course."
"Do you see anything unusual here?"
Eliot thought for a moment. "The shop should've been closed, but they're still here. They've probably connected a guy hacking their cameras with me making a mess in the store. They're careful. Whatever they are doing, they won't leave it unsupervised now."
The two brothers whistled at women passing by; Nate could hear their low snickering all the way across the street.
All the people on the street avoided making eye contact with them and hurried by the shop to pass it as soon as possible.
Nate smiled to himself. "Okay, we can go back. I've seen enough."
Eliot pushed himself off the wall. "Yeah, this trip was really worth taking. Made my day. "
Nate now smiled at his gruff tone. Yes, it was worth taking. And if they were lucky, that gruff would soon become a usual annoyance. Only that would show them things were back to normal.
Eliot knew it would be hard to be in this apartment so soon after everything that had happened, but he didn't count on every little thing reminding him of… well, everything. Nate's poking hadn't helped at all.
He felt like some strange, unknown life form wearing the skin of a humanoid Spencer.
Late afternoons at the apartment were his favorite time of day just a month ago. Not much had changed - he had a beer in his hand and was surrounded by people he loved and felt comfortable with, yet in spite of all that, he felt restless.
The Team was playing their best game of 'Everything is normal and we ain't watching him at all' – a game they had practiced and mastered during the past few weeks.
Sophie was still pissed at him so he avoided her. He talked with Nate and Hardison about things he couldn't remember two minutes later. Eliot was allowed to check Hardison's bruises and ribs which filled some more time, mainly with manly squeaking.
Then he went to the kitchen to prepare something to eat while they waited for evening. Cooking had always calmed him down, but tonight, Sophie and Parker sat on the bar stools at the kitchen counter and watched him chop vegetables, while Hardison and Nate discussed something techy at the dining table set for five.
The last time he was cooking, there was three women sitting on those bar stools.
Restless and miserable – that was a winning combination for tonight.
And George was staring at him the whole time, following him with a steady gaze wherever he moved.
By the time he brought full plates to the table – with a broad smile and relaxed movements that he carefully maintained – he was half sure the knot tied tightly in his stomach would bend him like a pretzel.
Nobody commented on him serving himself only soup.
Nobody looked at the demented, distraught elephant dancing in the middle of the table, either.
It would've been better if they had asked him something about his absence; where had he been, what he was doing… even how he felt. But he knew they wouldn't.
He even felt the ghosts of his victims were easier to keep at bay when he was alone with them, rather than here with his family. The worst and the best in his life collided now, once again showing him that he might've exaggerated his progress a little.
Whatever. Recovery and rebuilding were verbs in this case, not nouns. He couldn't expect to just rise and shine as if everything was solved. It wasn't, and it wouldn't be for the long time.
All he had to do was endure his life until it happened.
Day by day, starting with this one.
He grabbed his beer, put a calm smile on his face, and listened to Hardison explain all the ways people could hide their paper trails when buying a car.
George listened to the lecture too, so he was sure one of them would remember it later.
Sophie was grateful for colder nights, because that drew people in McRory's, so the Team was invisible in the crowd. The bar was full. She wasn't sure of Nate's tactic of letting the McTavishes see them all together. Yes, they would be confused and might make a premature move that would lead to a mistake… but at the same time it drastically lowered the number of possible actions. Only Parker was yet unseen.
Yet, she played along.
She sat with Nate in a small booth, chatting when noise levels allowed, all the while monitoring the entire bar. The patrons sat mainly around the bar, or played cards at the back tables. Younger people gathered in booths, or were simply standing around, chatting and playing darts. She even saw a small group of Goth girls in one corner, like a flock of purple black crows with pale faces.
Mike told them that Meghan, Hugo's owner, was one of them.
Hardison and Parker drank beer at the opposite end of the bar, closer to the counter and Mike.
Eliot covered Cora – at Mike's wish of not letting her know he was watching over her – so he mingled all over the bar.
They had all been there than an hour there when the hitter came over to their table and sat. "What if they don't show up?"
"Then we'll go home," Nate said. "Nothing will change, we continue tomorrow."
Sophie watched as Eliot nodded and sipped his beer. His left arm was casually over the back rest, and he watched the people around them.
No one else would see anything unusual in his behavior; he seemed to be in good mood, relaxed, and actually having fun.
However, she knew better, but his smile was a good sign. The effort he put into his normality was an even better sign.
Finally Eliot stood up. "Mike says this is past their usual time. If they don't show up in the next hour, we go home?"
Nate nodded. "Yes. No point in waiting."
"Any plans for tomorrow?"
"Working on a few ideas, yes. By tomorrow I might even figure out what confuses me the most about this case."
Eliot smirked. "Good luck with that." Then he looked at her, and his smirk faded an almost invisible nuance. He could feel she was watching him, studying him, and his eyes hardened. It was just a blink, less than a second, before he grinned again, taking his beer. "Or I could stay longer and have some fun."
In Nate's slight hesitation before he nodded and grinned back, Sophie saw he made the same conclusion she had about Eliot's effort to show them his good mood. Nate couldn't see or feel many things, but the things people hid were always clear to him.
He waited until Eliot disappeared amongst the people before he turned to her. "And, what do you think about our Team being complete again?"
She almost chuckled at his choice of words. They were in her field – human feelings – and his discomfort was palpable.
"He wouldn't come back unless he sorted all the ghosts in his head," she said. "It will get easier with time, but he is keeping his head above water."
"And that... the other thing?"
"Florence, Nate, Florence. You can say her name."
"Yes, that," he said gruffly. "You think maybe he wasn't so involved, that no harm is done?"
Well, every mastermind had to be clueless in at least in one thing. It was just her luck she got one who was clueless in matters of the heart. She suppressed a sigh and smiled at him. "Look at him and tell me what you see," she said.
Eliot was with four young women, offering them his most enchanting smile. The girls made a circle around him, moving in tighter and tighter after every smile.
"He will do anything to stop us pondering about his emotional state and love life," she said when Nate failed to speak. "Including flirting, having fun, and heck, even falling in love if needed."
A shadow fell over their table, and Hardison bent closer to their heads. "And in case you didn't notice, he is again polite, calm and smiling like he was when we got him home from Estrella," the hacker said. "Defenses all around. We have to break through, as soon as possible."
Another clueless man. "Leave him be, Hardison," she said. "He has just returned. Give him some time and don't press him."
"But I have an idea-"
"Definitely not. You'll make things worse."
Hardison exchanged a quick glance with Nate before he sighed at her and nodded; she knew she would have to keep an eye on both of them.
"Just for the record." Hardison raised his finger. "He is acting. And when you act, and hide things, it becomes harder to pull yourself out of it." With that, he turned around and went back to Parker.
And what would you know, you sweet, innocent boy, about pain, guilt, and screams in the night?
In the end, a working evening and an ambush for the bad guys became a night of good fun with people they knew from the bar. Eliot challenged a group of younger men to play darts, then Hardison and Parker joined in and the entire bar cheered and called rounds while they played. Even Parker and Hardison enjoyed that, though there was a visible aura of attentiveness around both Eliot and Hardison when it was Parker's turn to shoot.
Sophie enjoyed the smiles all around. Mike and Cora ran to and fro with full trays of beer and snacks on the house. Even patrons nodded in approval.
Nate allowed himself to be dragged into a game of poker. Sophie kept an eye on him, yet there was no need. He returned after a few games in a much better mood.
In the meantime, the darts group had broken into a few smaller teams and continued to play, which gave a chance for the rest of the Team to slide back into the background and mingle in separate parts of the bar.
If the McTavishes came in now, they wouldn't see any of them at first, but they would be observed from all sides. Eliot flirted with the Goth women two tables behind Sophie and Nate; he had that old predatory glint in his eye, and a high voltage smile that melted even tables at a twenty feet radius, but he kept the entrance directly in his line of sight. Parker and Hardison returned to their stance on the bar stools, watching the door in the mirror above the counter, and Hardison talked with patrons.
But Sophie had enough of this as time passed. She started the evening with cappuccino, and ended it with white wine – and there was only a definitive amount of white wine one could drink without ruining everything. It was rare their job was this relaxed and positive, so she decided not to ask when they were supposed to leave – one of the others would do it in her place.
She glanced around to see who would be the first candidate. Parker seemed slightly bored, but Hardison still gesticulated in a deep debate about something. Sophie didn't even bother to check Eliot – it wasn't likely he would simply stop flirting when surrounded with young women. And that was good for him, too.
She glanced at her glass, eyeing the wine and calculating how long she could sip it, when a touch on her shoulder drew her attention. Eliot stood behind her and Nate; they both turned to face him.
"Are we done here?" he asked. His voice was gravelly and low. "It's late."
The first look at his face started her alarms ringing. His face was so drained of any color that it reminded her of that first dreadful day they brought him home after That Night, when even Betsy didn't know if would he live or not.
"I'll call it a day," Nate said. "They won't show up this late, and we all need a long night's sleep. Tomorrow will be busy, especially for you. Five large guys won't send themselves to ER, right?"
"Yeah." Eliot said. "Was just going to say the same thing. Going home."
He simply turned around and left.
Nate raised his eyebrows while looking at his back, but said nothing.
Sophie bit her lip, thinking. Maybe this was too tiresome for him, still barely recovered? Betsy said he would take months to come to back to his old shape. But there was no sway in Eliot's steps, nor were his shoulders hunched in tiredness.
Nate got up. "Coming up?" he asked.
"No, I'll go home," she said. "I'm tired."
"I'll talk to Mike and see if there's anything new; maybe the patrons noticed something important that we missed."
"You do that," she said lightly. But her eyes darted to the Goth group that Eliot had just left; the women were huddled close one to another in a universal comforting cloud. Only five minutes ago they were staring at him almost enchanted, like little flies caught in his webs.
Well, even Eliot Spencer could face a rejection from time to time; a game of flirting was always risky. It wasn't the best time for that, though. He looked too shaken.
It wasn't hers to poke at that. She stood up and collected her things, deciding what to do. She looked at the door where Eliot disappeared, then back to girls.
Would simple rejection from a woman put that haunted edge in his eyes? No, not even now, so close to Florence.
Sophie put her phone in her purse and went over to the Goth group.
"You're Meghan, right?" she smiled at the woman in the middle of the group. "My friend borrowed Hugo today. Is everything alright, dear?"
She knew the woman wouldn't say a word, so she looked at the two others. One was angry, the other was sad.
"That rude jack-ass," the angry one said. "We should've kicked him!"
She blinked in surprise, for the moment not knowing what to say. The words 'rude and jack-ass' didn't belong in the same sentence with Eliot Spencer when women were in question. The man couldn't even hit a woman unless she at least tried to blow his brains out. She never saw him being anything less than polite and charming.
"That guy that just left? Handsome, long hair? I know him. Never saw him being rude."
"Is that so?" The mad one scoffed. Sophie looked at the sad one, with the question in her eyes.
"Tell me what happened."
"He bought us a drink," she said. "We talked. Everything was normal. But then he said something about our clothes, and asked about the differences between Gothic and Emo culture. Then Meghan told him she wasn't a Goth."
Sophie raised her eyebrows. If this was just about stupid outfits…
But Meghan looked at her then, with red eyes. "I wear black because I lost someone. It's a tradition in my family – you wear black when you mourn people. I told him that. He looked like a guy whom you could tell something like that, who would understand. He asked-" Her voice broke and she shook her head as her eyes filled with tears.
The angry one took over. "He asked about it, and Meghan told him. It was her brother. He was shot down in a gunfight a few weeks ago, when the Mexicans and the Irish went to war with each other. He was only sixteen."
"He stared at Meghan – no words, no condolences, nothing – and simply turned around and left."
She stared at them with her mind blank, and only after a long, long pause was she able to come up with some words. "I'm so sorry to hear that," she recited her mantra. "I'm sure it's awful for you, but you have good friends with you now. I'll make sure that guy doesn't do that ever again."
She didn't wait for their response; she left them as quickly as she could.
Dear God. He didn't need this now, so soon after he returned. Not after she spent weeks to show him – to convince him – that the gang members who died That Night chose that fate themselves. That they lived by the sword and died by the sword.
She searched the bar, but Nate was already gone. Parker and Hardison still laughed with someone – no, they weren't right for this.
She opened the door and hurried into the night.
Eliot's Challenger was still parked in front.
With a sinking feeling in her gut, she knew where he was.
A street light in front of the bank drew long shadows toward the McTavish shop. Being the last house on the street, followed only with an empty construction site, the shop was half in the darkness. Only now, when she came closer, did Sophie notice that the street light in front of the shop was dead. She doubted it was a coincidence.
No light came through the front door and windows, but she could bet the workshop behind them was full of light.
In the darkness, on an empty street, it was so easy to remember Parker's words about vampires, cannibals, and serial killers. She shivered, yet she continued.
Sliding past the shop's front door, she heard something over the constant background Boston roar; the sounds of fists hitting flesh.
Four dark shapes circled one around another through the debris and broken wooden pallets. From here there was no way to tell them apart. The shop cast a heavy shadow, blocking the light from the bank.
Her own shadow wasn't visible, because she glued herself to the corner of the shop, only peeking out at the construction site. Knowing the front door was behind her raised the hair on her neck, but she couldn't tear her gaze from the fight.
It took her only fifteen seconds to see which one was Eliot.
As she watched, breathless, he was taken down with a nasty hit – but he got up, returning to the fight. Three times he was knocked down and three times he struggled back to his feet. Yet he didn't even once try to hit his attackers.
He was the only one not fighting back.
Just one more fall, and he wouldn't be able to stand, or fight, even if he wanted to – it was time for her to do something, to call for help. Half frozen with grief, she fumbled in her purse for her phone. She took it out. And stopped.
No. There was no man who could help Eliot Spencer now. Only he could do that.
She put the phone back in the purse, and stepped forward.
Three shapes were facing her, and they stopped when they saw her – but Sophie had eyes only for the man with his back turned to her, kneeling, only seconds away from falling.
"Eliot," she said.
He raised his head. He didn't turn around, didn't move.
"What the fuck…?" One of them took a step toward her.
It was his last.
"Give me your car keys."
No reaction. Sophie didn't have time for this. Her quick fingers danced over Eliot's jacket, pulling them from his pocket.
She had helped him walk into the darker shadows, but they were still too close to the shop, where the rest of the McTavishes took care of their fallen family. Darkness carried Noreen's voice to them; she spoke of the ER, of a car and speed.
"Don't move," she whispered and left him sitting.
She returned with his Challenger when another car, loaded with unconscious people, passed by her, heading for the nearest hospital.
He was so damn slow. It had nothing to do with the beating he suffered; his mind seemed drained. Probably his soul, too.
She drove slowly, not turning her head to him, giving him time. Only after fifteen minutes did she throw a sideways glance at him. He sat with his eyes closed, but he wasn't unconscious. His back was straight.
It took another fifteen minutes of aimless driving before her hands stopped shaking, and the lump in her throat cleared.
"Do you have any plans for tonight?" she asked lightly when she stopped the car in front of her place.
The normality of her voice stirred him. "No," he said.
"Good. Now get out."
She led him up to her apartment. He had never been here before, only in the old one that got blown away with Chaos' bomb.
She put soft pillows on her sofa in the living room, and brought him ice packs to put on his bruises while she prepared some tea.
All along she watched him; a silent, empty shell of a man who just stared in front of him.
A tray with tea and chocolate chip cookies was followed by a warm blanket. Without any ceremony she simply lifted his feet and took off his boots, pushing the small table closer to him so he could half lie.
She perched herself on the couch next to him, and finally, he turned to her. Those tired, tired eyes. She hoped she would never see them again.
"How long were you…?" He stopped mid-sentence, but at least he spoke.
Yes, I saw it all. Someone else would lie to calm him down; not Sophie Devereaux. "Long enough. Now shut up."
She pushed a cup into his hands and clicked the TV remote. The starting credits of The Sound of Music filled the screen.