The first sound of Eliot's voice as he stepped out of Lucille onto the pavement behind the Brew Pub set off enough frantic barking for a whole pack of dogs. Ned came flying around the corner, ran up the wall, sprang onto the dumpster, and launched herself at Eliot at a good 30 miles per hour by Parker's estimation. Eliot was a man Hardison would put money on in a contest of strength with Superman himself, but taking a hit from 60 pounds of speeding dog right in the chest sent him staggering back against Lucille with enough force to dent the sheet metal, and Hardison planned to be having a serious conversation with Ned about that. A Serious Conversation.
Laughing and a bit winded, Eliot slid to the damp ground while Ned trampled all over him, licking his face and scolding him with sharp little barks for abandoning her to death. She punctuated her affectionate attack with exuberant dashes in circles, her tail nearly a blur. Occasionally, she would lick Parker or Hardison, too. Finally, she let Eliot scramble to his feet and head inside, but she continued to dance along beside him, occasionally jumping up on him in sheer excitement. Eliot was pretty much covered in muddy paw prints.
"Some people's boyfriends come home with lipstick on their shirts." Hardison laughed.
Eliot gave him a strange look.
It was ironic that the phone call came that night.
"It's the Animal Rescue," Parker said, locating Eliot's phone in the laundry hamper where he'd thrown his muddy jeans.
"Put it on speaker," Eliot said since his hands were covered in dough.
"Mr. Spencer, I've got great news," said the voice on the phone. "We've found a family down in Gresham that wants to give Ned a forever home."
"Oh," Eliot said, a bit stunned sounding.
Parker looked at Hardison. Was this a good thing?
After a moment the phone voice queried, "Are you still there?"
"What? Oh, yeah. Um. Good. That's great to hear." Eliot was fumbling for his words. "She's a good dog. She deserves a real home."
"They seem like a nice family," the voice went on happily. "There's a little girl who's 9. They've got a fenced yard and almost an acre of space. There's even a bit of a stream. I'm sure she'll be happy there."
"That sounds nice," Eliot said.
"They'll be here tomorrow at 10 a.m."
"I'll have her there. Thank you."
Parker hung up for him.
Eliot just stood there, with his hands in the bowl, like he didn't remember what to do next.
That night, Eliot fixed Ned all the dishes she loved best, including Brussels sprouts. Then the two of them went for a run to the dog park. Ned brought her Frisbee from where she had buried all her toys in expectation of her demise, and Eliot took it along.
When the two of them were gone, Parker climbed onto Hardison's lap, something she almost never did. She put her arms around him and laid her head on his shoulder. Hardison hugged her close, feeling his pulse pick up with a little thrill the way it always did when Parker let her guard down.
"Do you think Eliot wishes Ned was his dog?" Parker murmured.
"Maybe a little." Hardison knew he wanted Ned to be Eliot's dog. The man needed someone who didn't see Eliot Spencer, one of the most dangerous men in the world. He needed someone like Ned who only saw Eliot, the man she loved.
"Why can't he have Ned?" Parker asked plaintively. "We wouldn't even have to steal her. They're trying to give her away."
Hardison shook his head, feeling her hair brush his cheek. "You know how it is. Eliot thinks he can't keep her. Sometimes things happen, and you're not the person you wish you were."
The next morning every moment seemed a tiny farewell to every routine that wasn't going to happen again. Parker brought out Parker 2000, but their laughter at Ned's antics had a catch in it. Eliot set down Ned's last breakfast. Ned's begging nose peeked out from under the tablecloth for the last time. Hardison played Final Fantasy with her while Eliot packed her ball and Frisbee and bed into a duffle bag. Parker would have given her Parker 2000, but Hardison cut off that idea.
Then Eliot called Ned over to the door. Going down on one knee, he took her whiskery face between his hands and looked into her uncomprehending eyes.
"You're going to a new home, Ned. You'll have a little girl to play with. She can throw your ball and maybe your Frisbee. Maybe she'll tie pretty ribbons on you. There's a stream you can play in. You can keep her safe. You'll like that, won't you?"
He ran his hands through the fur on her neck and fondled her ears. "Are you ready to go?"
Ned was always ready to go out with Eliot, even when he was being strange and solemn, so when he stood up, she barked and spun around a couple of times.
"Wait!" Parker came running out of her bedroom carrying a bright green ribbon. She tied it around Ned's neck in a fluffy bow. "Eliot said you might like pretty ribbons. Goodbye, Not Eliot's Dog."
It was probably a good thing the dog was going away. Hardison was developing allergies. He had to dash away the water from the stinging in his eyes with the back of his hand.
With Ned gone, the apartment seemed a little too quiet and little too empty. Hardison actually volunteered to run with Eliot again, just so he didn't have to go alone those first few days. Parker made him take her climbing. The restaurant staff even took to provoking Eliot into his favorite rants because anything was better than Eliot being quiet and efficient and not even really there. Hardison floated another molecular gastronomy novelty by him, like a red cape to a bull, and was rewarded with a true rampage of Eliot the Chef—the ornery old Luddite. But he couldn't use that trick too frequently or Eliot would catch on.
The fact that their case heated up right away was a mercy. It turned out that the slimy real-estate guys were not only illegally selling shares to non-existent condominiums, they were also mobbed up. Eliot had located at least three shallow graves on that Florida property. So all that Leverage had to do now that they had proof of multiple crimes crossing state lines was to lay out the evidence trail and send the appropriate law enforcement in the right direction.
The night they planned the final takedown, Parker and Eliot dressed up all in black to minimize their chances of being seen. They would be breaking into the real-estate offices one last time. Putting on ordinary coats to disguise their more sinister clothing, they shouldered their packs and duffels and waited for Hardison to finish grabbing his electronics equipment. Together they piled into Lucille, and Eliot drove them to the location they'd picked to hide the van.
While Hardison set up the feeds to all the security cams, Eliot and Parker dissolved into darkness. He wouldn't see them again until the job was over unless something went wrong. His task was to make sure the building's own cameras didn't see them either.
Comms were live, but Parker and Eliot never made any sound when they moved. It was downright disturbing sometimes. Hardison resisted the urge to talk to them. It was a relief to hear the familiar thuds and grunts and the clicks of a weapon being disarmed that meant Eliot was past the security guard. The whole operation took less than fifteen minutes. All evidence of their tampering with the office was removed, and Eliot and Parker were on their way out.
As soon as they were back at the van, Hardison would call in the anonymous tip and send the encrypted files to the FBI. Nothing could be easier.
He should have known better than to think that thought.
A dark car with lights off and tinted windows pulled into the mouth of the alley. They were so close to where Hardison was hiding in the concealed Lucille that he didn't dare breathe for fear they would hear him. Six men got out of the vehicle dragging a seventh one unwillingly along with them.
He had to warn his team.
"Eliot! Parker!" Hardison whispered. "You gotta get outa there, now!"
"What's the situation?" Eliot's subvocalized question sounded in his ear.
"You got company incoming. They're either the same guys we saw last time or their clones."
"Six. And what looks like a hostage." The minute he said that, he knew it was a mistake.
Eliot was never going to leave some stranger to the wolves when he was around to play hero.
"Parker, you get out the front," Eliot said. "I'll take care of this."
At times like this, Hardison wished Parker had a smidgen more fear in her bones. But she just breathed her agreement.
"Okay, Hardison, tell me what you see," Eliot demanded.
"Dammit, Eliot! Why you gotta do this?" Hardison complained under his breath. "There's six guys, probably all armed but only one of 'em's got a gun out. At least I think he's got a gun under his coat. They're coming to the back door. Four of 'em are holding back. Then there's the one with the hostage. He's the guy in the lighter jacket. And one is unlocking the door. Eliot what . . ."
The door opened, and the man with the key fell like he'd been hit by a sledgehammer. Which he pretty much had. Eliot came out the door like a vengeful Fury, grabbing the gun of the man holding the hostage before he could even register what was happening, and using it to knock him across the head even as Eliot ejected the magazine and unchambered the round.
"Get outa the way!" he growled at the hostage, pushing the man aside and wading into the remaining three guys who were still fumbling for their weapons.
Wait a minute. Where was the damn fourth guy?
"Eliot! Someone's missing!" Hardison called frantically.
Over the comms, Hardison heard the sound of the slide being racked on a semi-automatic shotgun.
"Very impressive, I'm sure," said an unimpressed voice. "Now if you would be so kind as to put up your hands."
Eliot stood in the shadows, surrounded by the unconscious forms and empty weapons of the five goons he'd just fought. The hostage had had the good sense to crawl through the door out of sight.
Hardison had never forgotten Eliot's little gunpoint lecture about the mistake most people made—getting too close. This gunman was not making that mistake.
Very slowly Eliot raised his hands. In the light of the street lamp, he smiled at the gunman and tilted his head in acknowledgement of a good play. Eliot Fucking Spencer. Always final boss overlord level composed.
Hardison, on the other hand, was panicking. He was simultaneously trying to access the local grid so he could blow the area lights, giving Eliot the advantage of darkness, and calling 911. As soon as Dispatch picked up, Hardison outlined the situation—active shooter, men down—and gave the address. The grid was taking too much time.
Parker was silent on the comms the way she always was when Eliot was in mortal danger. Parker knew about not joggling people's elbows.
"I could simply shoot you," the gunman said conversationally, "but I am possibly overly-optimistic in waiting for you to reveal the purpose of your presence here and your somewhat precipitous assumption that my people were in need of being disabled."
"Look," said Eliot, equally cool. "If you expect me to give you the evil speech of evil, I ain't doin' it. So you might as well just shoot me and get it over with."
Hardison could hear the eye roll in Eliot's voice.
"Ah, an intelligent opponent. How vanishingly rare. I really do hate to kill you."
"Sorry, but I'm not here to play Princess Bridewith you."
How could Eliot sound so . . . bored! Also, great geek reference. Hardison was a little proud, on top of the terror.
The gunman laughed and pulled the trigger.
At the same moment, with a ferocious growl, a black dog sprang off the dumpster behind the gunman sinking white teeth into his wrist. The startled man gave a shout of pain and slammed the dog into the edge of the dumpster.
Eliot had stiffened when the shot went off, then he charged at the gunman, wrenching the weapon from his grasp with one hand while driving his other elbow into the man's face.
Without even glancing at his fallen opponent, Eliot ran to the still lump of fur lying motionless on the pavement.
"Ned! Ned! Sweetie, are you okay?" Eliot knelt beside the dog. He was holding one arm tight to his right side and Hardison could see the wet glitter of blood. With his left hand, he reached out to barely brush Ned's head.
Hardison's mouth felt desert-dry. Not again. Eliot hadn't wanted a dog because he didn't want to lose one again.
Then the head lifted up ever so slightly, and Ned licked Eliot's hand.
Hardison gave a whoop and punched Lucille's ceiling.
"She's not dead?" Parker's voice sounded in his ear.
"No, she's not!" Hardison reported jubilantly. He could hear the faint sounds of sirens now. Ugh. That meant dealing with the police.
The back door of the van opened, and he turned to see Parker hop in and begin pawing through drawers for a change of clothes.
"When you have to deal with the police, it's best to be the police," Parker said, sounding for all the world exactly like Nate.
"Right." Hardison agreed. "Hell, yes."
"And since this is going to be an FBI case . . ." Parker said, holding out a jacket for Hardison.
"Hello, Special Agents Hagen and Thomas!" Hardison finished, slipping into the uniform.
In the few minutes they had before the area was swarming with cops, Parker and Hardison ran to Eliot's side.
"How is she?" Hardison asked.
Ned was still lying on the ground. Eliot was using his phone as a flashlight to check the color of her gums.
"Alive," Eliot said. "But she's not getting up. Every time she tries, she cries. I'm trying to tell if she's got internal injuries, but this light is crap."
"You're shot," Parker commented, noting the blood soaking Eliot's shirt.
"Just a scratch." Eliot brushed off her concern. "Plowed a groove across my ribs and just nicked under my arm. Thanks to Ned, his aim was off."
"That's a little more than a scratch," Hardison objected. But this was Eliot If-I'm-Conscious-I-Don't-Need-A-Doctor Spencer. There was next to no hope he was going to let them fuss over him.
"I'll live," Eliot growled. "Now we need to get Ned to a vet. I can tell if I've broken something, but she can't talk. She needs x-rays."
Hardison pulled out his phone for a quick search. "There's a veterinary hospital with an ER and specialists open 24/7 in Clackamas."
"Let's get her ready to go, then."
But their departure was complicated by the arrival of police cruisers on both ends of the alley.
"Quick," said Parker. "Eliot lay down. You're in need of a doctor. We'll volunteer to take you."
Special Agents Hagen and Thomas met with the Oregon City chief of police, pointed out the witness hiding in the restaurant, and assured her that all the unconscious men were wanted as part of an ongoing FBI investigation. Their second unit would be by tomorrow to take charge of the interrogations.
"Our CI was winged in the altercation," Special Agent Hagen told the officer. "Nothing requiring an ambulance, but we'll take him by the ER just to be sure."
She left Agent Thomas to fluff up the ego of the local constabulary with extravagant compliments on their reaction time and handling of the situation.
By the time Hardison got back to Eliot, he and Parker had slipped Ned onto a blanket from Lucille. Since Eliot was playing the walking wounded, Hardison and Parker lifted the dog carefully between them. As gentle as they were, Ned still whimpered in pain.
Hardison winced all the way back to the van.
Eliot kept a hand on Ned's head as he walked beside them.
In the end, Eliot had to ride in the back lying next to Ned. She got too agitated if he took his hand off her.
"Hardison, you drive," Eliot said meaningfully.
"Oh, yeah," Hardison agreed. "I'm pickin' up what you're layin' down."
Parker and Hardison carried Ned into the Veterinary ER on their makeshift stretcher. She raised her head to look around, but when she tried to move, she gave a shrill cry.
The sound twisted in Hardison's stomach.
"Shhh. Lie still. That's a good dog. Good doggie." Eliot soothed as they laid the blanket on top of the examination table.
Hardison filled out paperwork, and Eliot answered the veterinary assistant's questions while they waited.
The vet who met them introduced herself as Dr. Angkiri. "And who is this?" she asked.
"Ned. Her name's Ned," Eliot replied, running his hand over the dog's head.
"What happened?" Dr. Angkiri asked as she pulled on neoprene gloves. "Hello, Ned. I'm going to be examining you to see where you're injured."
"She was thrown against a dumpster by a guy the police were after." Eliot was sticking fairly close to the truth.
The doctor examined Ned, chatting as she worked. "I don't see any signs that she's got internal injuries. Her color is a little pale and her pulse is a little high, but that's probably just shock. She's got some major hematoma along her right side. But what really seems to be bothering her is her shoulder. I'm going to send you down for some x-rays so we can see what's going on."
They all followed Ned's gurney down to the radiology lab. At that hour of the night they were the only ones waiting.
The technician tried to have Eliot leave the room, but Ned got too upset, so Eliot ended up donning the lead apron and joining her to keep her calm.
Parker and Hardison left Eliot and Ned back in their ER cubicle waiting for the results of Ned's imaging and went in search of coffee and snacks. While they were gone, Dr. Angkiri returned.
"Good news," she told Eliot. "Internally, she seems fine. Nothing is broken. She's just got a dislocated shoulder. Hurts like hell, but we can fix her up."
"Yes!" Hardison danced several steps down the hall. "That's what I'm talkin' about!"
"I don't think she'll need surgery," the vet continued. "I'll just put it in place, and we can use bandages to support the leg and shoulder. She'll need plenty of cage rest so she can avoid injuring herself further. And you'll want to ice both the shoulder and the bruising on her side."
"I don't think I want to hear this part," Hardison told Parker.
But Ned took whatever manipulation the vet was doing like a trooper, only jarring Hardison's nerves with one really anguished yelp.
Parker squeezed his hand comfortingly.
As they were walking back to the ER sipping blessed coffee, they heard the vet ask Eliot, "Pardon me. I don't mean to pry, but are you going to be okay? I mean that's not your dog's blood."
"Yeah, I'll be fine," Eliot said. "It looks worse than it is."
"I know I'm not a human doctor," she persisted, "but I'd say you should get that looked at."
"Thank you," Eliot replied.
He didn't bother to tell her that it wasn't nearly cold enough in hell for him to be thinking about seeing a doctor.
Hardison just shook his head. There was nothing you could do with the guy.
"How do you think she just happened to be there in that alley?" Hardison asked as they were driving back to Portland.
"I don't suppose we'll ever know for sure," Eliot said from the back where he was sitting with a drugged and drowsy Ned. "She must have run away again, and on her way through Oregon City, stopped by the place where she used to get food."
"That family is probably pretty worried." Hardison realized. "I'll call Animal Rescue tomorrow, and see if they can contact them. Let 'em know Ned's okay."
"Sort of okay," put in Parker.
Eliot stayed silent.
Back at the Brew Pub, Hardison was designated to carry Ned. Eliot was looking a lot paler than usual.
When they made it to the apartment, they realized that they no longer had Ned's bed.
"It's okay," Eliot said. "She can sleep on mine."
Ned, however, still refused to be parted from Eliot, and Parker was getting that "I'm the boss, and you're getting first aid" look about her.
They finally settled Ned in the doorway of the bathroom on a fluffy purple rug that Parker loved but that Hardison insisted looked like somebody had killed a muppet. They had to assure the water-phobic Ned that for now, she was safe from baths.
Eliot, on the other hand, was not.
"Do I get any say in this?" he asked mildly.
A mild Eliot was never a safe one.
Parker, however, lived a life of jumping where angels feared to fly. "Nope," she told him, hauling the big first aid kit out of the closet. "Sit." She pointed at the toilet seat.
Hardison grinned. His woman. She had the most dangerous man on the planet wrapped around her thieving little finger. He stood beside Ned in the doorway, not seeing anything he could do for Eliot that Parker wasn't already doing.
Hardison always felt particularly helpless when people (or animals) got injured. He'd taken a course in first aid and kept up his certification ever since Nate had been shot in that bank job, and Eliot had been the only one who knew what to do. And frankly, who was gonna be the most likely to need repairing? Eliot "I don't do hospitals" Spencer. That's who. Not that Eliot didn't seem to possess an inexhaustible supply of highly competent, unfairly attractive medical personnel who had dated him at one time or another and were willing to nurse him back to health. But what Hardison really didn't know was how to keep that kind of shit from happening in the first place.
In the end, he did the one thing he was exceptionally good at—research. Leaving Eliot to Parker's efficient if less than tender ministrations, Hardison made his way to his beloved computer. If Leverage was going to have a canine team member, how could they keep her safe?
What did the military do for their dogs?
Hardison had a picture up on screen of the SEAL dog who'd been in on the take down of Osama bin Laden, when Eliot came back into the room. Parker, with all the insouciance Hardison wished he possessed, had cut him out of his bloody shirt, helped him clean up and stitch his wounds, and plastered him with bandages. But the jeans he was wearing were still crusted with blood that had run down his side and dripped from his arm.
Damn. Hardison just wanted to the hug the man until he promised never to do that again.
Ned agreed with him. She was drowsy and limping, but she was plastered to Eliot's leg like she never planned to let him out of her sight.
"Look up K9 Storm." Eliot nodded at the dog in body armor on Hardison's computer. "It's a company in Canada where the army gets all its gear for dogs. They make vests that'll stop a Threat Level II handgun round or a blade."
"Got it." Hardison said.
Eliot rested a hand on his shoulder. "Thanks, man," he said quietly.
Parker bounced into the room looking like her clean-up strategy for Eliot had been to transfer all the gore from him to her.
"Eliot, bed," she ordered.
Eliot rolled his eyes and made no move to comply.
Parker noticed the picture on screen. "Oh, cool! That harness system is rated for 2,500 pounds! Ned, you can rappel off skyscrapers with me! Do you need me to steal one?"
"They're custom made, Parker," Eliot said. "You can't steal them."
"Oh." Parker looked disappointed. She eyed Eliot and the dog like they were a problem she needed to solve. Then she narrowed her eyes. "You need to lie down. Ned isn't going to stop until you do, and the vet said she needs to spend lots of time immobile."
Eliot knew when he'd been beaten. "I'll just get her to sleep, and then I'll make supper."
"No, you will not!" Hardison objected. "You got shot, man!"
"We'll order takeout," Parker decided. "People who get shot don't have to cook. They have to go to bed."
"You see what I put up with?" Eliot asked Ned. She looked up at him in adoring agreement with whatever he said.
"Take Eliot to bed, Ned," Parker told her. "Good dog."
For a wonder, that worked.
Hardison gave Parker a high five as Eliot and his canine shadow trailed off in the direction of the room that was always Eliot's when he stayed over. When Eliot slept at all in their home. If Hardison could have talked to Ned, he would have told her that loving Eliot Spencer would break your heart.
Later, Hardison found Parker leaning on the door frame of Eliot's room, watching over their injured hitter and dog. Eliot lay on his bed, having actually gone to sleep. He hadn't even bothered to get under the covers or put on a clean shirt. In the dim illumination from the door, the bandages on his ribs and arm were pale against his skin. Ned was curled up on his uninjured side, her head resting on his breastbone, staring dreamily at his face. Eliot's arm circled her, his hand curved over her neck.
The faint light brushed over the planes of his chest and arms, soft enough to blur out the scars and the lines of his face. Hardison thought Eliot looked a bit like he must once have done as a young soldier, resting after a skirmish with his dog at his side.
Ned lifted her head and looked up at them, one cinnamon eyebrow tuft raised. Eliot's hand tightened in her fur, but he didn't wake.
Hardison glanced down and found Parker looking up at him, a happy smile on her face. He knew how she felt. It was good to see Eliot safe and at peace.
As they stealthily withdrew, Parker gave a silent little skip.
"I think Eliot has a dog now," she whispered, hugging Hardison's arm.
"Yeah, mama, pretty sure he does."
"We can call her Ed." Parker decided.