This final chapter will assume that readers have seen 'The Princess Bride'.
"Jesus, Spencer … you look like shit," Vance said, looking down at Eliot and wincing at the bloody face and beaten body.
Eliot squinted up at him, blood still trickling from the cut above his eye, and gave the big man a sneer.
"Yeah … nice to see you too, Mike," he sniped, grimacing.
Nate appeared beside Vance as he watched the man's team quickly and efficiently take control of the situation, man-handling the criminal element out of the building, Singa screaming that he was dying and that he needed medical treatment. An aromatic Danny McAllister Junior was escorted outside to a military vehicle, two members of Vance's team arguing about whether they should let him sit on the seat without plastic between him and the leather covering.
"Did you get Senior?" he asked, eyeing Vance.
"Ten minutes ago. He's not happy."
"Don't worry – you'll have all the evidence you'll need to put him and the whole bunch of them away for quite a while, if not for life."
"And here it is," Hardison said as he made his way through the warehouse doorway and handed Vance a memory stick. "All major paper trails, conversations, texts, schematics, receipts … you name it, you got it."
Vance stared at the memory stick and then turned his gaze on Hardison. But the hacker was ignoring him. He was crouching down beside Eliot and gently wiping blood from his best friend's face with some gauze he had obviously taken from Lucille's medikit.
"You okay, bro?" he asked, concerned.
Eliot winced as Hardison pressed on the cut on his brow, trying to stem the bleeding, but nevertheless he managed a tired grin.
"No … but I will be. Just need to rest up … sleep for a month, maybe …"
"Yeah … well, I think we should call Doc an' –"
"Nah. I'll be fine." Eliot was quietly dismissive. "Thanks for the armour, Hardison. Saved my life," he added softly.
Hardison almost broke at that one.
"Of all the dumb, stupid, stupid things to do, El … if Junior had used a thirty-eight I'd be decidin' where to bury your sorry ass."
"Hey! I didn't know the moron was gonna shoot me!" Eliot growled weakly but indignantly.
"Well, looks like I'm gonna have to work on the bullet-proofin' thing, huh, if you're gonna get shot at more often," Hardison grouched.
"Hardison …" Eliot breathed, his voice shaky now.
"Take me home, will ya? Need to go home."
Hardison wiped his suspiciously damp eyes and nodded, smiling.
"Okay, man. As soon as we can."
Vance turned his gaze back to Nate. "Still think you guys should come work for me. I'll make the same offer to you two," Vance added as Sam and Joe wandered up to find out what was going on.
Sam shook his head.
"No thanks. Already got 25 years of service under my belt. I did this just for the hell of it." And to help a friend, he added silently.
"Ain't had so much fun since I left the Marines," Joe added, giving Vance a toothy grin.
Vance was curious.
"What the hell do you two do anyway?"
"Us?" Sam said innocently.
"Oh …" Joe said. "We're cooks."
Vance's eyebrows hit his hairline.
"Cooks? You're kiddin' me."
"Damn good ones at that," Eliot grouched. "Although I'm probably never gonna hear the last of this, I reckon."
Sam and Joe just sniggered.
Vance shook his head. Every time he got involved with this bunch of lunatics, things just got weird. Giving up on Sam and Joe he scowled at the smashed Infra-guns.
"Oh man, why'd you have to take 'em apart like that?" he complained.
Nate couldn't suppress a look of smug satisfaction.
"We didn't think anyone should have these things, Vance. Them or us."
Vance shook his head doggedly.
"You know we'll use the schematics an' retro-fit 'em," he said waspishly.
"Not my problem," he said. "Oh, and the girl. She's a runaway, Vance. Make sure she gets home safe and sound and that she gets whatever support she needs."
"No question of that, man." He watched as the girl, now a little steadier on her feet, was tended to by an army medic. "She'll be looked after, I promise."
Nate rubbed his hands together. They were done. He turned to Eliot, still being fussed over by Hardison.
"Ready to go, Eliot?"
"Oh god, yeah," he replied, weariness in every syllable. "Hey Mike?"
Vance, already planning how he would tidy up this mess in the warehouse, looked at his old comrade.
"Say hi to Marie an' the kids for me, will ya?"
"Will do. And why don't you and your freaky little team come over for Thanksgiving? You can make that pecan pie Marie likes so much."
Eliot grinned and waved a hand dismissively at the big soldier.
"You got it."
Vance gave back a cocky grin, pleased as punch. He flicked an informal salute and then was gone, back into his world of covert ops and the eternal hunt for terrorists.
And it was at that moment Eliot knew the whole thing was over.
Nate and Hardison took Eliot home.
He lay on the sofa bed in Lucille, hurting and bruised and just about out on his feet, and was content.
He listened to Hardison babbling on about how he had driven Danny McAllister to madness by accessing his Porsche's on-board computers and played around with street lighting, and even managed to get Johnny Mathis singing out of an unplugged digital radio simply by hacking the frequency.
Eliot just lay back and drowsed, happy to let the hacker blather on and on about still-connected CCTV systems and getting Parker to scatter foam bits in the air vents of Danny's apartment to make creepy-mouse noises in the walls. Even Nate had been involved, Hardison using a photograph from Sophie's cell phone of Nate wearing his favourite fedora when they had visited Rome the previous month. Hardison was a fiend with photoshop.
Eliot had to admit the man was inventive, and, he realised, Hardison had done it because McAllister had come frighteningly close to killing the nearest thing the hacker had to a big brother. That knowledge almost gave Eliot a nasty case of the warm-and-fuzzies, but he tamped it down firmly. He'd cook the fool something nice instead.
And so he let them take care of him, with Hardison checking the hitter's wounds even as he yammered on about how it would take Vance and his people fifteen years to figure out what he had done to the Infra-gun schematics so that the things would never work.
When they reached HQ Nate and Hardison gingerly helped him out of Lucille, Sam and Joe there to help before heading back downstairs to give young Mikey a hand with late dinners, and Eliot was carefully assisted inside by his family.
And then everything became maudlin and disgustingly pathetic, and Eliot was fussed-over and coddled, dammit, which he hated with a vengeance, or so he told himself.
Parker, now in full-blown medical mode, patched him up. She scolded and poked and then stitched the cut in his brow, and almost wept at the enormous bruise surrounding the shallow gouge taken out of his chest muscle where the bullet had almost penetrated the spidey-armour.
Then she scolded him again for good measure, and then shouted at Nate and Hardison for not being gentle enough when they helped Eliot get into his sweats and put him to bed. After all that, Parker had a good cry, poked Eliot again, and said she was going to get him something to eat. Then she stalked out of the room and left Eliot to his own devices.
Supper that night was a quiet affair. Soup from the freezer reheated and accompanied by good bread, and then quiet conversation in Eliot's room, and the team settled back into what – for them – amounted to normality. They were back together, and they needed to be with their errant hitter, if only to make sure he was settled and healing.
Eliot managed a little food and half a glass of water, but sleep beckoned. Parker had him propped up by a veritable mountain of pillows with one under his knee to help take the ache out of his bad leg. He was warm, and the heat pads Parker had dotted about his bruised frame made him dozy, despite the pain.
One by one the rest of the team filed out, and Sophie, going to check on Lizzie, switched the light off as she left the room, leaving Eliot sleeping the sleep of the righteous.
Hardison couldn't sleep. He was exhausted, but the events of the evening wouldn't let him rest. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Eliot punched backwards by the force of the bullet, and he felt again the horror of the sudden knowledge that Eliot was dead. He took a deep breath and turned over for the umpteenth time, trying to settle himself.
But then he heard the sound of a television playing … a football game, he thought. He looked at his alarm clock. Just after one in the morning. Yawning, he decided to get up and make himself a hot chocolate. Maybe that would help.
Wandering along the corridor towards the kitchen area, he noticed Eliot's door was ajar. That in itself wasn't unusual when Eliot was sick or hurt, as the team needed to keep an eye on him as he had a habit of shutting them out and trying to take care of himself … or even disappear if he could. There was the glow of light from a bedside lamp, and the sound of the football game came faintly from within.
Hardison peered around the door.
"Hey, man … you okay? Do you need anythin'?"
Eliot looked wan and a little sick, but he gave Hardison a pained shrug.
"Nope. Woke up an' couldn't get back to sleep. Thought I'd catch the re-run of the game." He tried sighing but it hurt too much to inhale deeply, so he coughed instead. "Looks like I missed most of it, though."
Hardison thought for a moment.
"Goin' to make some hot chocolate. Want some?"
Eliot nodded. The sweetness and the heat would feel good, he thought. He had taught Hardison the Eliot Special Hot Chocolate method with a hint of vanilla and spices, and the hacker had been – for once – an excellent pupil. No lasers this time.
"Yeah, sounds great." He shifted, wincing.
Hardison flinched in sympathy.
"Oooh, hot chocolate?"
Parker's voice sounded at Hardison's shoulder as the little thief pushed past him, comforter and Bunny in tow, and flung herself onto Eliot's big bed, letting out a noisy yawn.
"Dammit, Parker!" Eliot hissed, his wounds jarring. "This ain't a pyjama party, y'know!"
"Can't sleep," Parker mumbled. She reached over and lifted the lid of the ottoman at the foot of the bed and hauled out a couple of pillows, and then dug in for the night. "What're we watching?"
Eliot bristled feebly.
"We ain't watchin' anything! I was watchin' the game!" he complained.
Parker gently wrestled the remote control out of Eliot's sore hand and then, almost as a second thought, leaned forward and put her hand against Eliot's forehead, careful of his cut brow.
"Hmmm …" she pondered even as Eliot tried without success to bat her hand away. "A little warm," she said to herself. "No fever though." She eyed Eliot, who scowled back. "You're prone to fevers. That's because you're an idiot when you're sick," she added. "Hardison, we need popcorn!" she pronounced, changing tack in the blink of an eye.
"You have to have popcorn when you watch movies," she explained as though Eliot was a five-year-old. "Duh!"
"Comin' up, babe!" Hardison grinned. "Check out Netflix. My movies. You'll find somethin' we can all watch on there."
Eliot groaned helplessly even as Parker settled herself beside him, comforter, Bunny, remote and all, and brought up Hardison's Netflix account and began scrolling through the hacker's movie choices.
He had no idea why they did this. They invaded his body space, then invaded his goddamn room when he was hurt, stitched him up, yelled at him when all he was trying to do was the right thing, when all he wanted was –
Eliot suddenly realised that what he wanted more than anything was their acceptance and their love. And all of this caring nonsense was part of the whole package. Well … he supposed he could cope.
His ponderings were interrupted by a little voice coming from the corridor piping 'BOFF!' very loudly.
"Make that five hot chocolates, please, Hardison, and some juice for Lizzie." Sophie said.
Hardison's grin was all pleasure.
"Anyone want anythin' else? Cookies maybe? We still got some of Eliot's double-choc-chip in the refrigerator."
"Marshmallows," Nate grunted, squinting in the light as he wandered into Eliot's bedroom and slumped down on the big couch Eliot sometimes used for naps during jobs. "Need marshmallows," he continued as he pulled a throw rug off the back of the couch and draped it over his pyjama'd body.
Sophie wafted in, all silk dressing gown and pyjamas, carrying Lizzie who reached out for Eliot. She hadn't seen him all day and she had missed him.
Parker took her and had a quiet word with her god-daughter before tucking her in beside Eliot, who looked sore and very tired, but secretly had thought he might never see his best girl ever again. He had missed her desperately.
"Lizzie … you have to be gentle, okay?"
Lizzie listened to Parker very carefully. She knew Parker took care of Eliot when he was being dumb, and Lizzie liked to help, so she gazed at Parker, taking in every word.
"He's hurt, Lizzie, so you can't hug him too much, alright? And no patting his chest 'cause he has a big sore bit there, and his head's hurt too, although to be honest there isn't much in there to hurt," Parker added, just a tad irritated. "You just make sure he doesn't move around too much and gets some rest. You're good at that."
Lizzie grinned at that one, and then shuffled on her bottom over to Eliot, who felt a bit insulted. But he held out his arms and Lizzie curled into them, touching his arm gently and burrowing her face into the side of his chest, which didn't hurt Eliot too much.
Fifteen minutes later Hardison and Sophie brought hot chocolate, apple juice for Lizzie and an assortment of snacks, as well as a newly-heated set of pads for Eliot's bumps and bruises.
Eliot relaxed back into the pillows and the blissful heat of the pads at his chest and back, and idly pondered his situation. Here he was, safely ensconced in the warmth and comfort of his friends and with the little girl who unknowingly ruled his life, and he realised he had spoken from the heart when he had asked Hardison to take him home. And he was home. He was where he belonged. And it felt … right.
"Yes!" Parker hissed and disrupted the strange feelings of belonging playing hell with Eliot's being. "The Princess Bride!" she added triumphantly as she found the movie she wanted.
Well, thought Eliot, at least it isn't friggin' Star Wars.
Lizzie, sippy-cup and a cookie in hand, wriggled with delight. She loved The Princess Bride.
And so, with Eliot moaning about crumbs in his bed and his family sprawling around him wrapped up in comforters and throw rugs, they settled down.
The Princess Bride, for Team Leverage Plus One, was an interactive movie. There was a lot of shouting of lines. Things about being unemployed in Greenland and how one should never trust a man in a mask, and Hardison pointed at Eliot and yelled 'You are the brute squad!' which earned the hacker a snarling threat of dismemberment from the somewhat bruised hitter. Lizzie held her breath with anticipation as Westley fought the Rodents of Unusual Size in the Dreaded Fire Swamp, and screamed with delight as Inigo fought the Six-Fingered Man, and the whole team – including Eliot, who was secretly a bit of a fan – joined in with 'My name is Inigo Montoya … you killed my father … prepare to die!'
Lizzie was so thrilled she sprayed cookie crumbs all over Eliot's comforter as she yelled at the swordsman who would become the Dread Pirate Roberts.
Parker was of the opinion that Eliot would make an excellent Dread Pirate Roberts, which Eliot didn't dispute.
And as the good guys rode away at the end on white horses, Lizzie bounced up and down, pointing at the horses and 'boff-ing' madly.
Eliot quietly decided that in a few years' time the team would head to Oklahoma to see Eliot's uncle who bred Welsh ponies, and Eliot would pick out a gentle, steady pony for Lizzie and he would teach her how to ride.
As the credits rolled, everyone sighed happily and relaxed back into their respective cushions while Parker thought about their next movie. No-one was tired, and the relief at being together again and Eliot finally resting and quietly healing was in them all.
But Lizzie had something on her mind.
Twisting around to Eliot, she sat up on her knees and studied him with big, searching brown eyes. Her little hands patted his side very gently, and she looked at the stitched cut in his eyebrow and spotted the edge of the huge bruise now creeping up to his collarbone and visible at the collar of his loose teeshirt.
She began to talk. And she had a lot to say. There were lots of 'boffs' and, for the very first time, some 'El's in-between a whole jumble of 'nearly-words' as Parker called them. She babbled and frowned and patted, and Eliot gazed steadily at his best girl and listened very carefully. And she went on, and on and on.
When she stopped for a moment to catch her breath, Eliot tried to get a word in edgeways.
"Oh, c'mon, 'Lizbeth Grace, it wasn't that bad –" he muttered, irritated.
But off she went again, and the other members of Team Leverage suddenly understood that Lizzie was giving Eliot Spencer the talking-to of his life. Smiles began to appear, and Eliot became more and more frowny and grumpy, but he also began to look a little whupped, Hardison thought. Oh, how the mighty had fallen. Eliot Spencer, ass-whupped by an eleven-month-old.
But eventually Lizzie ran out of steam, and the string of jumbled sounds slowly petered out, and she huffed to herself. And then she kissed Eliot on the nose and waited for a reply.
Eliot blinked, looked around at his team and then back at Lizzie, and gathering his arms around his best girl, he gave her his answer.
"As you wish," he said.
Author's note: Many, many thanks to everyone who has read or left comments on this little tale of mayhem and nonsense. It has been such a pleasure to write for you all. The next story is coming soon.