Thank you, everyone, for being part of this story for the last few months. I'm taking next Monday off and then I'll be back with another 6 weeks of Leverage fic – all oneshot AUs. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did writing them!
The last song for the story is "So Alive" by the Goo Goo Dolls. I'll spare you my geeking out about the location they filmed the music video (a big, beautiful, abandoned train station in Buffalo, NY), but I have to tell you that when I first watched it, all I could think about was Eliot. So, of course, that's where this ends.
You readers and commenters are fantastic fans and I'm honored to have shared this time and this story with you. Thank you for everything.
Chapter 13: To The Edge
Nate was only stopped from throwing his phone by Parker who caught his arm. Sophie pulled the rental van off to one side of the road.
"The police are almost there. Is he okay?" Hardison asked.
"He's...yeah, I think so."
Parker met Nate's gaze evenly. "But he's going to kill Gauthier."
"I'm pretty sure he just did."
Sophie's whole face went tight, but she swallowed and raised her chin. "So, now what do we do?"
"I ain't having this argument about whether we go get him or not again. I ain't having it," Hardison put in.
Nate ran a hand through his hair. "Okay. Well, we probably shouldn't show up at an active crime scene unless we want to get caught all over again. But I don't know where Eliot's going next. Hardison, you better try to get a camera on his position, because he's going to destroy that phone you tracked and all the rest of them if he hasn't already."
"Way ahead of you. I got every traffic cam for a mile out looking for him." He sighed. "But he knows how to avoid them if he really works at it."
"We shouldn't try to follow him," Parker put in. "He'll just run. We need to go where he's running to and catch him there."
"She's right," Sophie said. "We can't chase him down. We need to find him."
Nate nodded, knowing they were correct. "But where will he go next? I think we might have to find out if he learned anything from Gauthier and see where that leads us."
Hardison frowned. "Well, I mean, we could, but that seems like a waste of time to me."
Nate looked at him. "How so?"
"Okay, if you were Eliot and you just killed a man, what would you do next? After you do all the creepy anti-forensic things he probably knows how to do?"
Nate blinked. "He's killed someone. He's going to try to disappear, of course."
Hardison blew out a breath. "This is Eliot, man! And, yeah, he shot that guy and all, but still. Eliot. And you know what he's gonna do right now, as soon as he thinks he's lost us?"
Nate shook his head.
Hardison smirked. "Eliot's gonna go find someplace to brood."
"Brood?" Molly asked. She had been quiet most of the trip out of Venezuela, and her eyes were wide again.
"Yeah. Have you ever noticed how much time that guy spends just thinking? I mean, it's cool, I do a lot of thinking, too. But there's no way in hell the first thing on his mind is to go find somebody else to mess up. He might try to get away from us, so we might have to follow him somewhere. But I don't think he'll even get that far before he needs to go sit in an empty room or lurk in some kind of dark alley and just contemplate stuff for a while."
Nate looked at Hardison with light in his eyes. "You're absolutely right."
"He'd go someplace out in the open," Sophie said. "He wouldn't want to feel closed in."
"And someplace high up," Parker added. "Where he could see things clearly."
Nate should have been annoyed that they had anticipated the Hitter better than himself, but he couldn't bring himself to be upset. After all, the only thing that was going to bring Eliot home was if they all wanted him back. If they all accepted everything he had done, everything he had made happen, and trusted him just the same.
Besides, even though they were right, he realized that now, they didn't know where to look.
And Nate did.
Letná Park was quiet, with only a few people wandering the paths or gathering in laughing, chattering groups for a sunrise run. Nate ignored them all, moving to the quieter end of the park where there was a railing and an overlook of the Prague Old Town, the sky above gold and shifting to blue as the sun rose.
Over where a lone man stood, bandaged hands braced on the railing.
"So." Nate leaned on the railing beside Eliot. Closer to Eliot Spencer than most people ever got without violence. "Been a long time since we were last standing here. Or, I was standing. I seem to remember you high-tailing it over the side. Which, really, I appreciate. It always was easier to let you go than find out how many of my bones you could break in one swing."
Eliot looked sideways while barely shifting his eyes, a question in them.
"No, they're not here. And I'm not wearing the earbud." Nate turned so he could see both ears clearly. "It's just me. I thought...you'd prefer it that way."
Eliot said nothing, though Nate could practically feel him vibrating with tension. Like a bow pulled taut – if Nate bent it too far, the fragile stillness that kept him here would break.
But Eliot gave a single nod, and Nate took that as a good sign.
"What happens now?" Nate asked.
Eliot gave the slightest shake of his head, a tiny twitch back and forth. "Nothing."
Nate gave him a moment to add something to that; when he didn't, Nate blew out a calculated, loud sigh. "Nothing, huh? The world just stops spinning right here, right now?"
"Something like that."
Eliot didn't reply.
"You know." Nate kept aiming for casual, but let a sliver of sincerity wind into his voice. "I'm...familiar with that feeling. Waiting for your heart to stop. For your breathing to quit. That feeling when you can't die because you're alive...but the world around you died instead."
Eliot snorted. "Little melodramatic, don't you think?"
"No, I don't." Nate leaned his posture even more forward. "You went to the wall on this one, Eliot. Moreau all over again. Except, this time, you can't pretend it didn't happen. And I can't help you hide from it."
"I ain't hiding."
"From what you did? No. No, you're right. You're not hiding from that." He paused and let the air fill up with expectation before he delivered the blow. "You're hiding from us."
Eliot's eyes closed briefly, the faintest flicker of despair in a face that was mostly frozen.
"You killed somebody." Nate said it simply. "You killed somebody in cold blood. And you helped a whole room of people try and succeed to kill each other."
"Yeah." Eliot's voice was granite hard and icy. "I did."
"And you bought all our lives in the process."
Nate could see Eliot's throat working as he swallowed, the slightest tip of Eliot's head as the weight and burden on his shoulders shifted.
"I know...you don't want me to say I'm sorry. Or thank you." Nate paused, read the lines of Eliot's shoulders to be certain his assessment was correct. It was. "I know...I can't even imagine...well." He stopped. "I guess I don't have to."
That was unexpected enough to make Eliot turn his head sharply. Only a little, just enough to be able to see all of Nate's face out of the corner of his eye. But it was something.
"You told me. When I was going after Dubenich and Latimer. You told me what it does to a man to take a life." Nate kept his own eyes firmly on the horizon. "I...in the strictest and most technical sense, I didn't kill them. Except. Well. I did."
Eliot's chin dipped a fraction in acknowledgement.
"Tell me, Eliot. Does the blood show?" He let his bitter smile emerge from the folds of his composed face. "Do you think they can see it on my hands when they look at me?"
Eliot's face turned back. "Nothing to see," he said.
"And why not?"
Eliot huffed. "Stop it, Nate. It's not the same."
"Of course it is."
Eliot's breathing was speeding up, and Nate watched his grip on the railing tighten.
"You're not gonna stand there and get me to tell you that it ain't so bad you killed them just so you can turn it around and use that on me. It's not the same."
Nate suppressed every visible sign of his inward elation – it was the most he'd gotten out of the man since just before Eliot crushed his earbud.
"Does it have to be?"
Eliot went stony silent again.
"Does it have to be?" Nate leaned on the question just as he leaned on the railing. "Does what you did have to be the same as what I did for you to understand that we don't see you any differently? Or can what you did and what I did be 'not the same' and still not mean I have to walk away without my Hitter?"
There was a momentary, blink-and-you-miss it pause in Eliot's breath, a hitch.
Nate dove into the gap in Eliot's defenses.
"I can't make you come back, Eliot. I've never been able to make you do anything. But if I walk away today and you don't come with me, I'm going back to the team without a Hitter. I'm going back without someone to keep us safe. Is that really what you want?"
He could have suffocated in the cold tension in the air. Nate pressed on, sensing victory ahead.
"Did you really kill him just to leave us behind? Where there wouldn't be anyone to save us next time?"
If anything, Eliot went even more frozen, more still, icy granite. Nate charged forward; he had chosen this hill as the one on which to die.
He would die on any hill under the sun for the sake of the man beside him.
The man who would, without a doubt, do the same for him.
"You're allowed to hate yourself for this if you want. God knows you already do – and the team knows it too. We all know, Eliot. We also all know who you really are. And we don't see the murderer when we look at you. But if you do, that's your choice."
Nate gave an easy shrug, taking a moment to let that much sink in before he continued.
"Either way, though, you killed that man to save all our lives. And that isn't the act of someone who would turn around and leave us to get killed by the next shark to swim into our path. Especially if that shark came after us looking for you."
Eliot unlocked his jaw and managed one word in a voice that was dry and cracked. "Quinn."
"There is no Hitter on earth who can replace you, Eliot. No one who can watch our backs, play our game, and bring us all home. There's no Hitter on earth who would even try. Imagine Parker poking Quinn in the ribs, or Hardison chattering in his ear over the comms, or Sophie correcting his grifting. Imagine Quinn working with me. And do you really think Quinn is up to fighting off whoever might come looking for you someday? Whoever might come for me?"
He had him. Nate was sure of it. Now he just needed to drive that truth into Eliot's soul so deeply it would never come loose again.
"You know what Parker said when we were coming to get you? That it was about family. And she's right, Eliot. I said it myself. We are a family. And that includes you. No one else."
Nate rolled his shoulders a bit, adding a little extra slouch into his posture. "If you walk away, or if you don't come back, we're not going to find another Eliot. There's no such thing. We'll just have to work without a safety net. Or maybe I'll take over as team Hitter. What do you think about that?"
He didn't have to imagine the barely-suppressed twitch from beside him.
"Eliot." Nate dropped all the light taunting, the over-casual delivery, even the feigned slump of his body. And he was rewarded.
Eliot finally turned to face him.
"Eliot," Nate said again, firmly, meeting his eyes and never looking away. "Don't ask us to chase you. Don't ask us to turn our backs on you. You killed for us. You would die for us. Let us give you this much. Let us keep you."
The emotion in Eliot's eyes was brittle, far more than it had been when he admitted his association with Damien Moreau.
"They love you, Eliot," Nate said. He planted the flag of victory right in Eliot's heart, and locked it in place with all his power. "They love you. And you love them. You love us all enough to do what you did. And no matter how you see it, we see it for what it is. We see you for what you are."
"And what am I?" Eliot managed, a half whisper, with more fear than Nate had ever known his indomitable Hitter to show.
Nate ended the battle with just one word, the only battle Eliot had ever wanted – heart and soul – to lose.
Eliot wasn't sure what to expect as he approached the rental van. Nate walked beside him, sauntering like the smug bastard he was, and without a hitch of nervousness.
But that was Nate.
Nate wasn't the one who had started a riot and gotten maybe dozens of people killed – bad people, yeah, but people.
Nate wasn't the one who had run out on the team and left them to Interpol.
Nate wasn't the one who had murdered Amand and his guards.
And no matter what Nate said about it, that was bound to provoke a reaction. Even if Eliot belonged heart and soul to the team – which he did, even if he hoped they didn't know it – that didn't necessarily mean that they could forgive him so easily. Trust was hard-won with people, especially people with every reason in the world not to trust anyone else ever again.
Eliot himself hadn't trusted the team for longer than he hoped they'd ever realized – except Nate, smug bastard again – and he couldn't expect them to trust him in return.
Why the hell was he going back at all?
But before that question even translated to a hitch in his step, he felt a hand on his shoulder. The same hand that held him back from doing his worst, the hand that offered trust and friendship and welcome and safety and admiration. Nate's gentle grip couldn't have pinned down a kite, but it anchored Eliot all the same. The sheer power of the man always had.
"You're braver than that," was all Nate said.
Eliot gave him a dark scowl in return.
The door of the van slid open and suddenly Eliot was hit in the middle by a weight.
Eliot had never in his life been so grateful for a hug. He wrapped his arms around Molly tightly and buried his face in her hair so he didn't have to look at anyone else.
"Hi, Perky." But Molly's voice had an edge of roughness to it, not just her light-hearted greeting from what seemed like years before back in Boston. She squeezed even tighter. "You're okay?"
"And everybody's safe now?"
Eliot raised his head, surprised. He looked at her, very, very carefully not looking up at anyone else. "Why?"
"I told them. About Rats. And what you were going to do."
Ah. Of course. Eliot nodded. "It's okay. You were right to trust them." Then, taking a breath, "You can always trust them. No matter what."
And he finally lifted his gaze to the others.
Sophie had stepped out of the driver's seat and was standing with one hand on the door-handle, paused in the act of moving forwards or backwards. Parker was perched on the floor of the van, her legs hanging out and swinging. Hardison was leaning out the doorway, one hand braced on the ceiling, the other on Parker's shoulder.
"So can you," Molly said softly in Eliot's arms.
And she stepped away from him all at once.
Whatever Eliot expected, it wasn't the dark blur that latched onto him, pounding his back and half-yelling in his ear.
"Don't you ever, and I mean ever just go off like that again! You hear me, Eliot? It was bad enough that we had to chase you all over the damn planet, but you disappeared before I even saw you on anything other than those ten-dollar, piece-of-crap security cameras! You coulda been bleeding to death and it would have looked like a smear on the lens!"
Eliot wasn't sure he could get a full breath inside Hardison's too-hard hug, and his head was tipped at a sharp angle against the taller man, and Hardison was managing to pound him in the back where he already had some other bruises, thank you very much.
But Eliot didn't care. He hugged back fiercely and would have denied to his dying breath that there was a prickle of wetness in his eyes.
He had to swallow twice before he could make his voice work, and when he did, it came out as a whisper.
"Alec. I'm sorry."
Hardison made a sound that was half frustration and half relief and pounded him again before letting go.
Eliot wasn't even aware of the transfer from Hardison's grip to Parker's. He just existed wrapped up in one, then the other.
Which, really, was true anyway.
Parker's hug involved rocking him back and forth a little jerkily, and she didn't know where to put her hands, so she held them in fists around his shoulders, but she pressed her head to his ear and he could hear her breathing stutter.
"I'm okay, Parker," he said softly. "I'm okay."
"You're an idiot," she told him, and her voice was high and strange and it broke him a little.
"Definitely." But she let him go and stared into his eyes as if he were the most complicated safe in the world. Then she poked him right in the biggest bruise on his face.
She grinned. "Ha."
"Parker." Sophie was chiding, but smiling, and Parker stepped aside to let her through.
Eliot looked into Sophie's eyes with the most fear. Hardison was loyal and Parker was like him and Nate understood – but Sophie was the purest amongst them of all. Sophie had the strictest moral code, such as it was, and the most unwavering anger.
Sophie looked at him, her gaze dark and piercing.
Then she shook her head.
"You really are a moron, Eliot Spencer. And if you ever do anything like that again, I'll make sure you regret it." And she hugged him quickly, but not so quickly that he didn't see the sudden tears in her eyes.
"I won't," he told her. He didn't hold her as tightly as he had Hardison or Parker – Sophie was breakable in a way the others weren't. Even now, when her spine was pure steel. He held her gently, and he let her be the one to draw him to her shoulder.
And it was there, in her arms, warm and soft like a mother's, that Eliot finally felt truly safe. His throat closed up completely and he thought he might burst into tears. It took everything he had to fight the urge to reach out and sweep them all into his arms, Molly too, just so he could hold them all at once. Just so they would all be safe, all in his shadow, his shelter, where he could keep them.
"Silly boy," Sophie murmured against his hair. "Did you really think we don't feel exactly the same way about you?"
Then there was a hand on his shoulder again, that bracing hand that held his leash and had given him his heart.
Eliot raised his head and looked into Nate's eyes.
That surprised Eliot enough that he had to gulp and ask, "For what?"
And Eliot owed Parker his damn life, because he might not have been able to stop the tears from betraying him right then and there except that she scoffed very loudly behind him.
"Of course he did."
And Eliot knew that Parker knew how close it was, that he almost hadn't, that it was something of a miracle he was here and not halfway across the world already, and that miracle was named Nate Ford. He knew Parker knew all of it. But he loved her certainty anyway. It gave him the fortitude to drag all his emotions back into their cage.
Sophie released him, shaking her head at his refusal to cry.
"Um?" Molly asked. She'd sidled up beside Parker and was tipping her head. "This isn't home. We're not even on the right continent."
But Hardison winked at her. "That's the funny thing about home. It's not about where. It's about who. So, yeah, you ain't home right now, but we sure as hell are."
Eliot had never agreed with Hardison more, but he wasn't about to admit that, either.
And there were a million things they should be talking about – like the potential threat to the team if Amand wasn't working alone, the fallout of international criminal syndicates making a connection between Eliot and Nate Ford's team, into what shape Eliot was going to rearrange John Connell's face if Nate hadn't done it already – but right then, Eliot was content to let it all wait. There would be time later to discuss the implications of all that had happened, to get Molly home to her father (and teach him a lesson about loyalty and honor he wouldn't soon forget) and get them both to safety, to get Hardison to flood the internet with the necessary mis-information to keep the team safe, to heal and rebuild and prepare for the next job, the next game, the next war.
But that was all for another day.
Right now, all Eliot wanted was all he'd ever wanted. And, if he was honest with himself, he knew that they wanted the same thing.
This chance they had all thought gone forever – to be together. To be a family.
Anything that dared intrude on this, that dared shatter this moment with the only people who mattered, well, Eliot would make sure it was very, very sorry.
Which is why, of course, Nate leaned over in that very moment, face pink with glee and twisted in a smile that made most sensible people run for their lives.
"Oh, and by the way, Eliot? Don't you ever sic Sterling on us again."
"You did what?" three voices exploded in pure outrage.
Eliot glared at Nate. Nate grinned back.
Eliot held up his hands, not sure which of the three was safest to look at, so he settled on Molly who was giggling into her sleeve.
And he realized that he'd been wrong. There was no possible way he could fail to return to them, no possible way he could have kept running, kept away from them, kept on the path he thought he'd been condemned to when he took the shot that needed taking. Even if there was yelling – and there was definitely going to be yelling. Because this was the only place he belonged. The only place he could breathe.
Nate had been right. Eliot was theirs. Through fire, blood, hell, and the angry faces around him now. No matter what the world threw at them, or Sterling did, or the team threw at each other, this was Eliot's life now.
He only hoped they figured that out, too, before they killed him out of sheer spite – and before he killed Nate for being a smug, all-knowing, brilliant, infuriating bastard.
"I can explain."
"Dammit, Eliot!" Parker and Hardison yelled in unison. Sophie was fuming beside them, and Nate had his arms crossed and was exchanging winks and waggling eyebrows with Molly.
And this was his reason to live?
Yeah, it really was.