"So … how've you been?"
Doctor Walt Toller sat forward in his seat and rested his elbows on his worn desk, and steepling his fingers, gazed calmly at Eliot Spencer, who was sitting equally calmly on a chair in Toller's Portland office and gazing steadily back at him.
Eliot thought for a moment, and then shrugged.
A snort came from Eliot's left.
"Yeah, sure you are, man …"
Toller tried to suppress a smile. He looked at the young black man who sprawled in his chair, glaring at Eliot.
"Should I open this up to the group, perhaps? Comments, anyone?"
Eliot scowled, but said nothing.
Sophie, dandling a cheerful Lizzie on her knee, sent Eliot a look of ill-contained impatience and then turned her best smile on the little doctor who was trying his best to deal with a stubborn Eliot Spencer and the decades-old grenade fragment in his back.
"He's been a bit sore lately," she said, her voice laced with an underlying threat to Eliot to behave himself and stop being a mule-headed idiot who didn't know what was best for him.
"Huh. You noticed that too?" Nate interjected, sending a questioning glare at their hitter, who ignored him.
"Sometimes he winces," Parker said from her usual place on the floor, sitting cross-legged beside Hardison. "He thinks we don't know, but we do. And he rolls his shoulder a lot and rubs his back when he thinks we're not looking. And it hurts him to pick Lizzie up sometimes, so he doesn't. It makes him sad," Parker added, narrowing her eyes at Eliot, who was doing his very best not to throw a conniption and tell the whole friggin' bunch of 'em – except Lizzie of course – to go to hell.
Toller relaxed back in his chair and studied his patient and his family. He knew that while Eliot would much prefer to attend the check-ups on his back all by his lonesome, his team had read him the riot act and told him that they would all be accompanying him, because they didn't trust him to tell them the important stuff. A report that simply consisted of 'I'm fine' just didn't work for them. At all.
Toller sighed and opened Eliot's real file. This was a file he kept to himself, at home, and locked in a sturdy safe. He knew what Eliot and the rest of his team did, and he knew about the good things they did for people who had no other recourse but Leverage International. But he also knew they walked the world of the damned, of those who did bad things to good people, and it had earned them all – especially Eliot – bounties on their heads from some very, very nasty sources. To that end, he guarded Eliot's file as best as he could.
But today was all about Eliot and the razor-sharp fragment in his lower back. Toller had the x-ray reports and scan results, and he needed to have a discussion with the man. Which really meant with the team, and Eliot just had to deal with it.
"Okay … let me see … since you didn't attend your first appointment –"
Eliot sat up straight and frowned.
"Soph had just had Lizzie. I was kinda occupied," he said, a little defensively.
Toller pursed his lips and nodded.
"I can live with that. But I'm glad you came today, as I can see by your x-rays that things have changed a bit since I last saw you."
The tension in the room, already noticeable, increased tenfold. The last time Toller had seen Eliot was in a hospital in Wallowa, Oregon, after the hitter had suffered some serious injuries while saving Parker from an old booby trap*. It was during this difficult time that the team had discovered one of Eliot's secrets – a grenade fragment embedded deep in his lower back, a relic of his time in the army as a younger man.
But what was worrying the team – and, secretly, was now causing Eliot a whole bunch of nightmares none of them knew about – was the damn' thing was moving, and had been doing so for nearly twenty years. Slowly, so slowly, but Toller had told them that it needed to be monitored on a regular basis. So, here they all were, making sure Eliot actually attended his appointment by escorting him en masse to his appointment with Toller. He was apt to give them the slip if they didn't herd him firmly in the right direction.
Toller found the latest x-rays of Eliot's lower back and put them up on the old light box he had installed in his office. Although Eliot was registered in the hospital system under an alias – Ellis Stone – Toller took no chances. He didn't want any record of Eliot in the hospital records system. He looked at four concerned faces around him, but Eliot didn't respond at all to the image of the misshapen, raggedy-edged hunk of metal lodged deep in the narrow muscle between his spine and right kidney, his visage set and stony.
Sophie, on the other hand, couldn't stop the sharp intake of breath as she gazed in alarm at the image. Lizzie, sensing her mother's distress, burbled quietly.
"Dear god, Eliot …"
"S'not that bad …" Eliot mumbled quietly, embarrassed that his team was taking the whole situation so … so … seriously. He'd lived with the thing for years, and it was his problem. He had agreed that they help, and he tolerated their fussin' and even appreciated it on occasion, but he was the one who had to deal with it … he was the one who had put up with the increasing ache and sharp, digging pains that were plaguing him almost daily now. He didn't even want to think about the episode when he collapsed the day Lizzie was born. He had managed to pass it off as exhaustion and incipient hypothermia, and he hadn't had a repeat of the numbness and pain in his back and right leg, but he had to admit, if only to himself … he was scared shitless.
He thought he had managed to hide any hint of pain or discomfort. But he hadn't factored in the eagle-eyed watchfulness of his friends, who knew him better that he had ever realised.
But he realised Toller was pointing out the position of the fragment and its relation to nerves and muscles and blood vessels, and he tuned back in, trying to figure out what life would have in store for him.
" – and it's now very close to the nerve lying beside a lumbar vertebra that leads to the femoral nerve, which controls walking … running, that sort of thing." Toller paused, letting these people he liked very much indeed have a moment to ingest the information. "It needs to come out. And sooner, rather than later," he added.
Eliot hated hospitals. He hated them with an unutterable loathing, especially if he was the poor bastard laid up in one, usually with bits of him in dire need of professional repair. But to commit himself to a hospital stay voluntarily and have his back cut open was … unthinkable. He realised his hands were gripping the arms of the chair so hard his knuckles ached, and suddenly, desperately, he needed to be gone.
He didn't hear the sudden babble of voices around him and his head throbbed with the urgency of wanting to be anywhere else but here, and he was already half out of his chair when a solid weight landed on his lap and he had to sit back down again.
Two small, chubby arms wrapped around his neck and a bubbly chuckle made him sit back in his seat as Miss Elizabeth Grace Ford, aged ten months, three weeks and one day exactly, hung on to her favouritest Dangerous Person in the whole world. He instinctively held her close, now effectively pinned to his seat and unable to move. Lizzie blew wet raspberries on Eliot's neck and giggled.
Sophie flashed Eliot a knowing glance of triumph. Lizzie was a very handy shackling tool, especially when it came to Eliots.
Eliot, now with a loving armful of baby, glared daggers at Sophie, who smirked. Dammit.
Nate, all business now, wanted facts.
"Okay … how soon? And what preparation do we need to do?"
Eliot snarled, even as Lizzie began chewing on his hair. She had a tooth coming through, and Eliot's mane was an easy target.
"Dammit, Nate, it's not up to you! It's my back," he rasped, furious, "an' I have to make the decision. It ain't yours to make!" Eliot's soft Oklahoma accent deepened as stress took hold.
"Yes it is," Parker said, frowning up at him. "Remember Eliot … you promised to let us know if you were hurting, and if you needed us. And we're holding you to it. We can't stand by and let you deal with this on your own, and I'm tired of seeing you wince and hold your shoulder funny because your back hurts, and Lizzie misses you too," she added, now in full swing. "She gets sad 'cause you can't pick her up sometimes, and you really struggle to get off the couch and carry her when she's asleep on your chest because that thing in your back is making your leg weak."
Eliot's face was a mass of confusion.
They noticed? Jeez. He must be slipping. Or getting old. Probably both, he decided.
It had taken him a while to recover from his injuries, and the team had taken great care not to let him back in the field until he could punch bad guys with alacrity and power, so how the hell had he managed to let all of this slip? He knew he was a better grifter than that.
"We got your six, El," Hardison said softly. "Get fixed up. You can't go on like this, man. It's killin' us watchin' you."
Eliot, now convinced Hardison and Lizzie had seen 'waaaay too many episodes of NCIS, allowed himself to tighten his gentle hold of Lizzie, her talcum-and-baby smell comforting him and her inane chattering grounding him like nothing else could.
He saw Nate's blue eyes soften, and his resolve began to crumble. He looked around at these people who seemed to be able to invade his privacy and who were happily oblivious to Eliot's self-imposed 'damn-well-leave-me-alone' strictures. They just didn't give a rat's ass about annoying him because they cared too friggin' much to take any notice.
They gazed back at him, worry and concern in every face, even as Lizzie managed to balance on Eliot's lap and stand unsteadily on her toes as he held her. She would be walking soon, he knew.
But he would be the one unable to walk beside her, watch her take her first running steps, or even teach her how to ride a pony, if he didn't get his back fixed.
He took a deep breath, gritted his teeth and nodded.
"Give me a couple of weeks, Doc, just to get some stuff figured out. Would that work?"
The sighs of relief were huge, and Parker flashed a grin of happiness.
"See? Not so hard, was it?" she crowed quietly.
Toller checked his diary and nodded.
"Works for me. Listen, Eliot – this is a good thing you're doing. There is no reason you won't make a full recovery and you can carry on with your life. Although," he added, smiling, "I'm pleased to see there have been no further broken bones or injuries since I saw you last."
Hardison's mobile face broke into a toothy grin.
"Yeah, well … Eliot an' me, we've been thinkin' on body armour an' the prototype has been workin' a treat. It's all about the spider webs, Doc – synthetic spidey-silk. Tougher, stronger an' lighter when woven into body armour. Tie that in with shear-thickenin' fluid an' we got somethin' special." Hardison nodded proudly. "So far, so good."
"It still hurts when someone hits you with a brick, Hardison! It just stops the broken bones!"
"Oh, stop whinin', El. And you're welcome," he added sarcastically. "I just saved you from a nasty whuppin' a coupla times, is all. No need to thank me all at once."
Toller couldn't completely stop the grin from creeping onto his face. He had forgotten how much fun it was working with this bunch of nutcases. And now they had a baby added to the mix, which was a bonus. The little girl was clearly very much loved if Eliot's care of the child now using him as a climbing frame was anything to go by. How he managed to keep up the Mister-Don't-Mess-With-Me persona with a baby chewing his hair into slobbery strings Toller didn't know, but Eliot somehow made it work.
"Two weeks, Eliot. It's a date, okay? Then we'll take that damn' thing out of your back and you can get on with living." Toller wrote down the date Eliot needed to present himself at the hospital and handed it to the hitter. Sophie intercepted it before Eliot could get hold of it.
"I'll deal with this, Doctor," she said. "It'll be easier if I have the details."
"We'll make sure he's here on time," Nate added, "and let us know if there is anything Eliot will need ahead of the operation. Whatever it happens to be, Walt. Okay?"
"And I'll need to know about any physio he should be working on afterwards. I can help him with that," Parker interjected.
"I'll organise someone to come in and maybe, y'know, make up some new menus while you're out of action," Hardison straightened in his chair. "Maybe try somethin' new … experiment a li'l bit." The hacker's face was all innocence.
Eliot growled, making Lizzie giggle. It was bad enough that these so-called friends of his were organising his life now, but Hardison interfering with his menus? The hacker was dead meat if he went anywhere near his goddamn menus.
"Dammit, Hardison –" Eliot's growl turned antsy.
"Hey, bro! Language!" Hardison was all mock horror and round eyes. He knew how sensitive Eliot was regarding cussin' around Lizzie.
The child in question cackled happily as she gummed and tugged Eliot's loose hair. He was beginning to look like a refugee from the sixties, and he simmered fiercely at the cocky hacker, now grinning like the fool with a death wish he obviously was. It was hellaciously difficult to give Hardison the Patent Spencer Death Glare when you had a child making you look like an ill-kempt bush. His left eye tic'd.
Toller, amused as he was, had other patients to see, so he stood up and waved his hand at the door.
"Go. Get out of here and I'll see you in two weeks. All of you," he added, hazel eyes twinkling.
He watched as Eliot held Lizzie safely in his left arm and levered himself out of the chair with his right, and Toller saw the tension in the man's right arm as his back twinged. But the child was safe, and he could see the rest of the team desperate to help, but knowing Eliot wouldn't appreciate it.
Once Eliot was standing, straight and strong, Toller saw the blue eyes glance at him, and the Oklahoman nodded in acknowledgement, Lizzie close to his heart and Eliot's arms around her as though he could protect her from the devil himself.
"Be seein' you, Doc," Eliot rasped, and then they were gone, easing themselves out of his office and into their world.
Dinner that night in the brewpub was a quiet affair, Eliot not cooking for once, and they sat around chatting, the conversation filled with soft laughter and teasing. It was just what Eliot needed, they knew, to stop him drawing in on himself and becoming even crankier than his usual anti-social self.
Lizzie sat in her high-chair and ate whatever was put in front of her, the team as one shovelling morsels in her ever-open mouth and wiping up the mess when she chewed a carrot stick into shreds. She burbled and chuntered and giggled, a happy child with a family who loved her, and all was well with her world.
The only down point in the evening was Eliot watching a couple seated in the far corner near the kitchen. He had caught the agitation in the man's face, and the discomfort in the girl's body language, and he kept an eye on them even as he talked with his friends.
Hardison and Parker were having an argument about which was the best place to hide one's millions, the Caymans or Lebanon, with Nate plugging Panama as an alternative and Sophie doing her best to wrangle a badly mushed banana out of Lizzie's sticky grip.
But Eliot was only half listening. The young couple's discussion was becoming more disagreeable. The man suddenly reached out and grasped his companion's wrist and twisted it cruelly, bending her hand backwards, and Eliot's keen hearing registered the stifled yelp as she tried to pull her hand free. The young man smiled viciously, and twisted harder.
"Just goin' to the john," Eliot murmured and stood up, clenching his fists for a moment before ambling over to the couple's table. The rest of the team didn't notice as they continued with their good-natured argument.
As he approached the couple Eliot eased his face into an amiable smile, eyes crinkling with humour.
"Hey, folks," he said, his voice warm and welcoming, "I'm the chef here and I hope your food was okay this evening?"
As he spoke, he held out his right hand as though proffering a hand-shake.
The young man, a tall, good-looking individual with arrogance oozing from every pore, quickly let go of the girl's wrist and she pulled back in relief. Her companion instinctively reached out his arm to shake Eliot's hand.
In less than two seconds, Eliot had a hold of the man's wrist, stretched out the self-righteous little prick's right arm and brought his powerful left hand down to crush the bunch of nerves in the brachial plexus at the front of the man's shoulder just above the armpit. The pressure was agonising and the man's entire body became rigid, a grunt of extreme pain working its way past his clenched teeth.
Eliot, masking his actions by placing his back to the rest of the room, leaned forward and whispered in his opponent's ear.
"Okay, man, I'll say this once and if you do as I say, nothin' will happen. You understand?"
The girl's eyes were wide with fear, but she didn't move. The man nodded jerkily.
"Y … yeah," he grated.
"Good man," Eliot said, his voice low and calm and absolutely terrifying. "So … what you do is pay the bill, get up, get outta here an' don't come back. And you never see this young lady ever again. Or I'll break you so bad even your momma won't recognise you. See what I'm sayin'?"
The young man nodded, and Eliot eased off, letting the now-limp arm drop and patting the man on his shoulder.
"Glad you liked the entrée," he said conversationally. "Sorry you have to go so soon."
He stood, relaxed and smiling, as he watched the man painfully ease out of the booth seat and rub his shoulder, and then pull a handful of banknotes out of his pocket and toss them on the table before stalking stiffly from the brewpub, his eyes full of fury and embarrassment.
Eliot looked down at the girl, his eyes soft with concern.
"You got somewhere safe to go?" he asked gently.
She nodded, rubbing the deepening bruise on her wrist.
Eliot turned to the bartender.
"Sam, can you call this young lady a cab an' make sure she has enough money to get her to a safe place? Thanks, man," he added, as Sam nodded, understanding.
The girl stood up and gazed into Eliot's blue eyes. She clasped his hand for a moment.
"Thank you," she said shakily, and then Sam was making sure she was alright and her attention was taken up with a future free of fear.
Wandering back to his table, Eliot saw Hardison look up at him, suddenly realising Eliot hadn't been sitting next to him for the past few minutes.
"You okay, bro?"
Eliot, smiling easily now and feeling a little better in himself and more relaxed, nodded.
"I'd go for St. Vincent … great confidentiality an' no hassle …" he said, sliding seamlessly back into the conversation, and as the night wound down, he began to feel more like himself, thanks to his friends and their care and support.
It was nearly midnight when Eliot let himself out of the brewpub's rear entrance and headed for the parking lot beside the building. He was going back to his austere little apartment, somewhere he could rest and take his ease. He needed to take in the events of the day and what it would mean for his future. And, he thought, what quality of life he would have in that future.
He was dog-tired, he realised. His back ached and the sharp, needling pain had begun again, sending throbbing streaks of agony down through his thigh and knee to his ankle. The muscles protested, pins and needles echoing through his leg. Damn, but he needed to relax and put his leg up on the couch with a cushion beneath the knee. It was the only thing that seemed to help.
But as he walked towards his old truck, he suddenly knew he wasn't alone. Somewhere … deep in the shadows, danger lurked.
His walk became lighter, balanced and taut, despite the pain in his back, and his shoulders tensed, hands hanging loosely by his side. His breathing evened out, deep and calming, and his mind focused on the space around him.
There were at least three of them, he decided. One, to his right and slightly ahead of him. Another … a slight movement in the shadows … on his left alongside him, hiding beside a dumpster. The last one was slightly behind him, flat against a brick wall, melding into the darkness.
But this wasn't a time to be complacent. Eliot knew he wasn't up to par, and he was in pain. But it couldn't be helped.
The first blow when it came missed him by a hair's breadth, swinging towards his head, but Eliot easily avoided it and punched low and hard, his right hand connecting with the soft belly of his attacker, who wheezed in agony and stumbled backwards.
To his left, the shadow moved and his attacker, younger and fitter than the first, managed to land a glancing blow on Eliot's right arm, spinning him around, only for Eliot to catch hold of a wrist and forearm and twist viciously. The man's elbow snapped.
His assailant stumbled away, screaming, and Eliot smoothly shifted onto his back foot and powered a punch at the last man, the one behind him, and damn, but this one was fast and Eliot missed, his weak leg giving way and he ended up dropping to his knee, stumbling forward.
Something wickedly hard hit him in the ribs. As the breath whooshed from his lungs in a grunt of pain, he saw the glint of metal, brass knuckles, he thought, and before he could catch his breath and move, a boot hit the back of his left knee and dropped him completely to the ground.
Another heavy work-boot caught him in the hip and a thrum of pure agony burst through him, his back arching as he yelled in pain. Someone grabbed hold of his left arm and hauled him to his feet, and god, it hurt, and it was then Eliot realised there was a fourth man, one that had arrived after the others.
The arrogant, surly, handsome face of the young man from the brewpub snarled at him, smiling, and the brass knuckles hit Eliot in the chest and he felt the ribs snap deep, deep inside.
The end came quickly.
Blows rained down on his face and chest, and a voice from very, very far away laughed as a steel-toe-capped boot smashed into his lower back.
Eliot couldn't breathe. The pain was so, so bad as he felt a terrible, agonising shift in his back, and as he slid helplessly into oblivion he could hear someone screaming, and he realised that it was him.
To be continued ...
* See 'Walk on the Wild Side'.