So, this is my last offering for the Leverage fandom for now. Will I come back? Of course! When? Uh…I dunno. Someday.

In the meantime, here is a three-chapter, more introspective story than Russian Roulette, though it is very much steeped in the same themes of found family, specifically between Eliot and Nate. I actually wrote this one first, but thought it fit better to be posted now.

Post-series canonical, so spoilers for the end of Leverage.

Thanks, everyone from the Leverage fandom who has been so fantastic and welcoming! See you around!

Enjoy!


Eliot woke to the feel of red waves lapping against his skin.

He wasn't in any sort of pain.

That was probably a bad sign.

Eliot closed his eyes – not that it helped in the murky darkness – and forced his brain to think.

Florida Keys.

Illegal dumping of chemicals. Exacerbating an already dangerous red tide.

Hardison's eco-rage.

Parker's plan.

Right.

Eliot opened his eyes as the last hour filtered back to him in bits and pieces. An off-shore platform. Distracting the hired thugs while Hardison swept up the digital evidence and Parker protected the physical copies. An explosion.

"Eliot! We gotta go!"

"I'm right behind you! Grab Parker and get the hell out of here."

"We're not leaving you behind! That's not how the plan works!"

"I know that! But I gotta make a different exit. I'll meet you at the hotel."

"You sure, man?"

"I'm sure! Now go!"

The sound of an outboard motor over the comms. Hardison and Parker not saying anything, not joking. But going. Getting out safely.

The platform beginning to fall.

"Eliot!"

"I'm fine! Turn that boat around and I'll turn you inside out, Hardison!"

"Okay, okay! We're going!"

The next bit was hazy – Eliot remembered something bouncing into his skull and the shriek of static in his ear as his comm was broken with the blow. Then more falling, more pain.

He started taking stock.

He could move one arm, but the rest of him was wedged and crushed under an unforgiving, dense weight. His left knee screamed with the familiar pain of dislocation. Something sharp was jabbing him in the gut, dangerously close to slipping under his ribcage and up into his heart.

The water was red.

Eliot heaved in a breath, only to begin coughing.

Red tide. Algal bloom. Hardison said something about it messing up the lungs if you breathe it.

Wonder what happens when you swallow half of it.

Probably nothing good.

With iron determination, Eliot stopped the heaving coughing between one wracking breath and the next, forcing himself to hold his breath and counting the heartbeats thrumming in his ears. He focused on the slimy, thick taste on his tongue from the contaminated water and held his breath until his vision swam. Until the seizing in his chest gave way.

He let the air out in a measured breath, noticing as he did so that the red waves had crept another inch closer to his chin.

The platform's going down.

He gave a shove and only managed to splash himself.

And it looks like I'm going with it.

Damn.

Eliot did not make his assessment lightly. He had been in countless situations more deadly, more overwhelming, had battled odds far more unlikely and walked away more-or-less intact. He was Eliot Spencer. He could march into an armed insurgent base and march back out again leaving only destruction and a completed mission in his wake. He could stand in a warehouse of twenty well-trained assassins and be the only living thing to emerge.

Give Eliot Spencer an opponent, a person to fight, and he would win every time.

But there were a few things Eliot could not defeat, could not fight, could not battle.

Gravity.

Time.

Loss.

Hatred.

Stupidity.

Hardison's dumb puppy-eyes.

Parker's incessant poking.

He snorted.

Eliot had lost the first battle when Nate Ford offered him a chance for revenge against Dubenich's little bomb plot. He had lost the next when he found out that working with a team for something good made the blood on his hands feel less thick, the death-screams in his memory less choking. Then he lost battle after battle against the Mastermind who knew every button to push, every trick and game to play, to tie Eliot's heart into the team.

"A little more than a team" as Hardison and Parker put it.

Eliot had lost that war so thoroughly that he was almost a casualty of it himself when Damien Moreau entered the field. Eliot didn't fear Moreau for himself, didn't consider his life own to be in danger. But the team – this team who was his and he was theirs and he would annihilate anything that threatened that – Moreau almost ended it for him. Not with a bullet. With truth.

Any other team should have dumped him on the spot. Should have demanded a full accounting of the horrors in his past. Should have called him out for the traitor he was, should have cast him out for the secret he had kept from them.

They didn't.

Sophie stood up for him.

Hardison forgave him.

Parker accepted him.

And Nate turned his evil to their advantage.

After that, there was no more battle. There was no more war. There was no more struggle to keep Eliot Spencer, heart and soul, separate from the team that was Nate and Sophie and Hardison and Parker. There was no fight to extract himself intact.

There was only surrender. Complete and total surrender to the inevitable.

To the indomitable will of Nate Ford and his calculating brain and his perceptive heart. To the strangest family Eliot had ever known and the only one he had ever wanted in his lonely life of blood and death.

And even when Nate and Sophie went their own way, when five became three, Eliot could only hold them tighter. His world, his life, was Hardison and Parker and their stupid movies and their terrible cooking and their hilariously pitiful attempts to prank him and their bizarre ability to find people in need every fifteen feet and their strange kindness. Eliot would have turned himself inside-out, would have cut off any organ on request, just to protect those cozy nights with Parker and Hardison on the couch giggling at space movies and while he pretended he didn't care even when he somehow ended up in the middle of their pile.

Eliot Spencer, who had trained himself to sleep for less than two hours of every day, lulled into the safest rest of his life with Hardison crushing an arm and Parker sprawled across his legs.

Eliot knew he was nothing but a sacrifice. He could have been a Mastermind in his own right, but he never wanted or needed the crown. He was a soldier, a champion, a protector. He was the shield that held back death and destruction at even the cost of itself. The only worth in his blood was that he could spill it and spare another's from being spilled. The only worth of his hands was the damage he could inflict to protect those in his wake.

Even now, more than ever, that was all Eliot ever wanted.

Parker and Hardison dreamed up ridiculous schemes, some crazier than Nate's on a bad day, and fought on behalf of those who could not fight for themselves. Nate's little black book of evil-doers had opened doors none of them could have anticipated, had sent what remained of Leverage Incorporated into darkness even Eliot had never seen before. But they marched against it, Thief, Hacker, Hitter, determined to leave corruption in shambles and the innocent spared and uplifted. A hundred jobs, a thousand, and the well of darkness had yet to run dry, but neither had they given up.

And Eliot put his flesh and blood on the line every time, took the pain, and Parker and Hardison were spared.

The red water was swirling around his neck.

Eliot gave another shove with as much strength as he could manage, but the collapsed structure didn't so much as shift.

Apparently I'm the one without any leverage this time. Damn.

Eliot closed the hand he could move into a fist.

He didn't mind dying. He had understood that death was a real possibility from the moment he signed his name on the enlistment forms many endless years before.

Of course, he hadn't truly understood it until he found himself in the middle of a firefight, watching his unit go down around him. That was the day he really met Death and learned its song.

But he had accepted the reality of death, and its likelihood. He had fought against it, fought to avoid it, fought to prevent it. Then he learned to deal it, to become Death's own hand, its scythe slashing through flesh and bone and delivering souls to oblivion.

He fell into Death, and with it, darkness. The boy who had once stood with God in his heart bowed his head to a new eternal power, a relentless truth, an Unholy Ghost. And legions feared his very name.

And then the world pivoted under him once again, and Eliot ceased his time as Death's right hand and sought it himself. Instead of the killer of nations, he wandered meaninglessly, aimlessly, putting his skills to work for those with money as long as he took no more lives in the doing. It was not so much penance as taking his turn in the ring, setting himself up to face an opponent who would mete out the death he had brought to others – low and honorless and senseless.

Eliot himself could not have said if a true death wish hung in his heart, but one was ever-present on his mind. If this job, this retrieval, this contract would be the one to walk him into the hands of his own murderer. Or, perhaps but not likely, the hands of the law which could never hope to punish him enough, but might make the attempt until someone else finished the job.

He could have made it easier on himself, of course. There were whole countries eager to find him, stake him out in their media and their prisons, take their pound of flesh for his actions. He needed only walk into one and let the wheels of delayed vengeance do the rest.

Even Eliot still didn't know why he hadn't.

And then enter Nate and Hardison and Parker and Sophie. Leverage and Dubenich and offices and meetings and little guys and scams and that niggling sense of 'doing good' that felt so alien inside his bloodied soul.

A soul that felt a little less bloodied every time he dared to glance at it, every time he listened to a sound from inside other than the hate that drove him, hate for all he had done and all he had become.

Until he realized that these people didn't hate him. Didn't see the blood.

They saw his hands as their guardians, his strength as their wall.

And Eliot Spencer made an enemy of Death once more. Not for his own sake, never again for his own sake, but for theirs. For them, for those who were his team and friends and family and everything and still more.

'Til my dying day.

Yes. He would buy their lives with his own and consider it a more than generous trade. No matter what it cost him, he would watch over them until there was no breath in his lungs.

Eliot figured he had about ten minutes before that moment came.

Probably there should have been fear. Maybe rage. Disappointment.

Isn't that what normal people felt as they died?

But Eliot closed his eyes and felt only sorrow and guilt and regret.

Not that he was going to die.

But for those he would no longer be able to protect.

There won't be someone to check Parker's plans and make sure there's an exit that doesn't involve leaping off a twenty-story building.

There won't be someone to buy time for Hardison to finish whatever he's doing when it inevitably takes longer than he expects.

There won't be someone to watch their backs in a crowd. Someone to spot the snipers and disable the bombs. Someone to keep them from seeing the worst. Someone to keep hands as bloody as mine away from their throats.

Dammit!

Who's going to make sure they don't give themselves food poisoning with their ridiculous, impossible cooking?

Who's going to triple-check all the gear?

Who's going to patch them up when they get hurt?

Who's going to hold them up when the weight of the world comes down?

Eliot hadn't really prayed to God in more years than he wanted to think about. And even now, he couldn't lift his head up to try.

God didn't listen to people like him. He barely listened to the ones who deserved it.

So Eliot prayed to the only powers greater than himself he had ever known or truly believed.

Nate. Wherever you are...I'm sorry. I failed. They're safe, but they're alone. You'll have to help them. You'll have to find them another Hitter. Someone strong enough to protect them and smart enough to know what that really means. Lay another trap, Nate. Find another me, a better me. Find someone who can shield them with clean hands. Find someone to be what this family needs and deserves. Find them and catch them and bind them just as you bound me.

And tell them I'm sorry.

Sophie – he knew her real name, of course he did, but she'd been Sophie for so long even after he learned it and his brain still thought of her that way, and he was pretty sure Hardison's did, too, even if Parker had had a harder time switching back to Sophie after Nate got out of prison than getting it right in the first place – and he was getting distracted by the past and not the time he had left. Sophie. Take care of Nate. He knows, I hope he knows, what he gave me. Because I gave it to him, too. You've always been there to love him. He's already lost so much. Help him – he has to bury another son. He kept me from falling all the way down. Don't you let him fall after me. And...thank you. I'm sorry for every minute I didn't trust you.

And tell them I'm sorry.

Hardison. Don't let Parker think this is her fault. It isn't. She's already lost so much, too. Hold onto her. She's going to feel things. Help her be angry with me, if it helps. Teach her to hate me for making her feel this way if it means she'll survive it. And let her be what she is. And watch your damn back. Stay alive until you find someone else to guard it. I'll kill you myself if you let yourself get hurt.

I'm so sorry.

Parker. Thank you for understanding me. Understand me now and take care of Hardison. He doesn't know how to do this. He doesn't know how to keep himself whole. You're the only one who can face darkness and not let it touch you. You have to keep it off him. You have to keep him from having to know. Never let him grow up or grow cold. You're the only one who can.

I'm so sorry.

The water reached Eliot's mouth. He tipped his head up as far as whatever was above him would allow.

Thank you.

Thank you for giving me reason to live.

Please keep living.

He closed his eyes.

I love you all. More than I could ever say.

I wish I'd told you.

I hope you always knew.

Something fell and the water swamped his face. The algae burned against his tightly-shut eyes. Eliot held his breath, even though it was hopeless.

But hopeless or not, even Death couldn't rob this last moment from him. This last moment that belonged not to Eliot Spencer – Hitter, retrieval specialist, assassin, soldier.

That belonged to what he had become.

To Eliot Spencer – avenging angel, guardian, best friend, brother, son.

It wasn't enough. It wasn't nearly enough.

Eliot would have fought Death itself to get back to the people who made his life worth living, who regrew him a soul from the tattered remains of humanity they had nurtured and loved. Pinned, drowning, Eliot would have put all his power and all his might and all his fury into an unwinnable battle, just for the chance to live one more day where he belonged.

With them, beside them, protecting them.

Death never gave him a chance.