Well, here ends The Red Tide Job, and my Leverage offerings for now. I have enjoyed every minute of sharing these stories with all of you, and I hope to run into you again either in new fandoms or when I inevitably return to our Leverage team!
Until then, thank you all for your constant kindness, support, and enthusiasm. You are amazing readers and I feel very privileged to have been able to share stories with you.
May you all find a hundred stories that fill you with joy, just as you've given me joy every week for most of this year.
And, as always – enjoy!
Eliot's awareness came back not slowly, but all at once, without him so much as moving a muscle. It was a skill he had taught himself long, long ago. He could transition from sleep to full consciousness without flickering so much as an eyelid, instantly able to assess his situation without even his heart-rate or breathing giving him away.
Voices swirled around him.
"Guys, did you even read what-all was in that water? You should both be gettin' checked at the hospital – stat!"
Hardison. Annoyed, worried, and with a trace of panic. So, nothing out of the ordinary.
"I didn't breathe it or swallow it. Trust me."
"I mean it. I'm fine. Worry about Eliot"
"I am worried about Eliot!"
Nate and Sophie. Well, that was unexpected. But Nate sounded calm and in control, and Sophie was worried, but not hysterical. If anything, she sounded annoyed at Nate.
So, other than them being here, also nothing out of the ordinary.
"It's in his blood, too. Does this mean he'll get superpowers?"
Parker. Parker never changed.
"What the hell kind of superpowers would he get from contaminated algae?" Hardison asked.
"I dunno. Maybe neat fish powers like that Aguaguy."
"Aquaman, Parker. Aquaman. And no, I'm thinking that's not very likely."
"Too bad. Eliot would be great with fish powers. He could summon sharks to eat people!"
Well, this was rapidly getting out of hand. But before he moved, Eliot did a quick check of his own status.
He was somewhere dry and warm, but not overly comfortable, and there was the pressure of a cushion to one side. That meant he was bundled up on a couch, probably in the hotel suite they'd rented for the purpose of this particular con. His left knee had been wrapped and elevated, but not yet un-dislocated. Eliot concentrated on the pain signals from that area. He knew what torn ligaments felt like, and he knew what kind of damage required surgery to fix and what didn't.
Probably, if he got his knee back into place and no bones were broken, and as long as he kept it bound, iced, and immobilized, and if he used that one stretching technique he'd picked up abroad, he could avoid having to go under the knife again.
Being a quick healer, and being hard to damage in the first place, had served Eliot well his whole life. This was just one more time he was grateful for it.
Continuing his self-assessment, he identified a shallow cut along his abdomen, and a hell of a lot of bruising across his chest and back – getting half-crushed by a cheap oil rig would do that to a person. His ribs ached, but his chest had already been bound fairly well, and he didn't sense any bleeding.
Being able to tell when he was bleeding internally had also saved his life more than once.
But his lungs burned in a way that had nothing to do with bruised or broken ribs, and his tongue tasted foul. That must be some combination of the chemicals and the algae. Well, if it was poisonous, he'd be dead by now, or throwing up, or running a fever, or something. None of that was true, so he figured whatever was in it wasn't enough to bring him down.
It was a gamble, of course it was. But everything was a gamble.
The sensible thing would be to get checked out at a hospital, of course. Even if he didn't need surgery on his knee, even if the algae and chemicals weren't a threat. A lot of things could have happened that he couldn't feel, and there was always the chance he was wrong. A lifetime of injuries, wounds, battles, and having to recover sometimes alone, sometimes in enemy territory, sometimes with nothing more than a knife and a pile of sticks to help him, had taught him many of his body's limits and tricks – but there were always more. A proper doctor, or a hospital, might be able to save him a lot of pain.
But that would also mean being separated from his team.
Eliot hadn't survived a collapsing, watery death trap just to leave them unprotected all over again.
"Tell you what," Nate said from somewhere to Eliot's left. "I know a former ER doctor who retired down here. Why don't you three go see if you can track him down and talk him into a house call for Eliot?"
"A house call?" Eliot could practically hear Hardison glaring. "He almost died in a tin can sinking into a pool of sewage! He needs proper medical care."
"Hardison's right," Sophie said.
There was quiet for a moment, and Eliot knew everyone was looking at Parker and Nate, at the original Mastermind and the new Mastermind exchanging thoughts. Before Eliot could decide if he wanted to open his eyes to interpret what they might be thinking to one another, Parker spoke up.
"No. I agree with Nate. We'll go find his doctor friend."
Hardison spluttered. "We will?"
"Yeah. Come on. You too."
"What? Why me?" Sophie asked.
"Because you're here, which means I don't have to grift for once."
"Hardison, you start tracking him down. His name's Darrin Kreel. Just give us a minute. Okay?"
Hardison was grumbling under his breath, but a lighter pair of footsteps drew him away to the door which shut behind them.
"I know, but...look. How many times have you ever seen Eliot go to a doctor? No matter how hurt he was? After that thing in DC he didn't even go, and he'd been shot. Twice."
"I know he can be stubborn, but…"
"It's not that." Nate's voice went low and Eliot knew the pair of them were inches apart, right over his head. He hoped they didn't forget he was here. Otherwise, he'd have to remind them that there were rules about public displays of affection and proximity to a wounded Hitter who was running out of patience.
"Then what is it?"
"It's his choice. It has to be. And Eliot trusts us. We can't break that trust by making a decision for him that we know he wouldn't want."
"Even if it costs him his life?"
"Especially then. That's what Eliot does."
Sophie let out a sharp, distressed breath. Then she sighed. "All right. But if he dies, I'm never speaking to you again, Nate."
"He won't die. He can't."
"What makes you so sure?"
"We still need him."
Eliot felt warmth pool inside and was glad nobody knew he was awake so he could enjoy it in peace.
"All right. I'll go help Parker and Hardison. Just...take care of him."
"I will. I promise."
Eliot listened to the sound of heels on carpet long after Sophie had left the room and shut the door behind her.
Eliot could hear Nate moving, then sitting in a chair that made a very distinctive creaking sound as he settled his weight into it. He considered just falling back into sleep.
"I know you're awake, Eliot."
"You can fool the others, but you can't fool me. I know you too well."
Eliot cracked open his eyes, blinking in the late afternoon sunlight that streamed through gauzy curtains.
"What gave me away?" he asked, and his voice was only slightly more rough than usual.
"Oh, nothing." Nate sat perched in a chair across from the couch, his boyish, triumphant smile wide on his face. "But I just knew."
"Figures." Of course the Mastermind who had ripped through Eliot's every defense, torn up his life, redefined his sense of self, made him a damn family – of course Nate would see through a trick that had fooled government agents, hired thugs, terrorists, and ex-girlfriends.
"How're you feeling?"
Eliot tipped his head so he could see Nate more clearly. "Fine."
"Just to be sure, do you want to go to a hospital? I can sneak you out past the others if you want."
Nate's smile went smug. "Of course you don't."
Eliot let out a short breath, then made a quick decision. "But I do need your help."
Nate was surprised by that, which made Eliot feel smug in return. It wasn't often he caught Nate unprepared.
"Yeah." Eliot pushed himself to a sitting position, ignoring the angry buzzing of his entire chest. "Help me set my knee."
Nate, to his credit, didn't stare at Eliot with an open mouth like a fish the way Hardison would have, nor did concern flood into his eyes like Sophie, nor did he jump too eagerly to yank on his injured leg as Parker would. He simply nodded and rose.
"Tell me what to do."
Eliot unwound the bindings on his knee that looked like they came from an EMT's kit. He felt around the injury, ignoring the white-hot pain even the slightest touch sparked. Pain was an old friend, and it had about as much say over how Eliot lived his life as anything else did. When he figured out exactly how the knee was out of its joint, he gestured to his shin just above the ankle.
Nate put his hands where Eliot pointed, wrapping them tightly around the thick muscle and bone.
"Lean all your weight on it and don't let go."
Eliot waited until Nate was settled. Then he gripped the couch, braced his other foot on the floor, and yanked himself backwards, twisting his leg with all his might.
The knee settled into place with an ugly snapping sound.
Eliot opted to ignore the sweat that suddenly beaded at his temples from the screaming agony that beat at his control with knives and fire. He could only barely choke out words, and it almost cost him consciousness to make them sound as normal as possible.
"Now wrap it and put as much ice on it as you can find."
And Nate earned Eliot's eternal gratitude by doing just that without a single word of commentary.
After Nate was back in his chair and Eliot could feign breathing normally, he looked over and managed a tiny smirk.
"Didn't expect to see you."
"I bet you didn't," Nate said. And there was concern in his eyes, but he didn't let too much of it leak onto his face.
"You got me out, didn't you?"
Nate nodded. "How'd you know?"
"Besides what Hardison said about you being in that water with me?" Eliot raised an eyebrow. "You've got a red mark from a scuba regulator on your face. It's a very distinctive mark. And they don't dive. Hardison swims like a squirrel."
Nate smiled. "He really does."
There was a time Eliot would have looked away, said something gruff, disengaged. But that was before. That was when he was more death and blood than man and heart.
"Thank you." And he looked straight into Nate's eyes as he said it. "Thank you for coming for me."
And Nate looked straight back, all the jokiness gone. "Always, Eliot. Always."
There was something that lived between Nate and Eliot, something they both knew was there but had never acknowledged. A connection so tight it surpassed definition.
It wasn't the silence of two Masterminds spinning through plans and people and facts and guesses the way Nate and Parker could come up with the same answer through entirely different means. It wasn't the long looks of trust that let Nate and Sophie communicate from across a room. And it wasn't the constant push-pull of Hardison and Nate fighting over a plan even when they agreed on it entirely.
This had always been different. Only theirs. A language of understanding and intention and innate loyalty.
It was Nate's invisible signals, the barest quirk of an eyebrow, the slightest shift of a jaw, that told Eliot when to make a move and when to hold still.
It was the way Eliot knew when Nate would be looking his direction before beginning to play a part, knew when to stand a step in front like a bodyguard and when to stand a step behind in support.
It was the quiet way Nate could say Eliot's name. Just, "Eliot." And Eliot knew Nate was asking Eliot to stop, to be a soldier and not a mercenary, to accept Nate's control and command.
It was Eliot's measured look, eyes level, the tiniest of nods, that told Nate that his Hitter was on board, or that a situation was under control, or that whatever it was, Eliot was ready to go all the way down and back if that's what it took.
It was Nate settling beside Eliot at the bar, not saying a word, and knowing that Eliot would accept his gratitude and his admiration no other way than shared silence.
It was Eliot turning away so Nate could pretend for the other three without that knowing stare peeling him and his truth to the raw surface.
And it was the fact that both of them could trust the other three in each others' hands – and no one else's. Because Nate and Eliot both knew, knew to their bones, knew to their souls, that there would be blood on the ground before either of them would let the rest of their team be hurt. What Eliot did with his body and his courage, Nate did with his mind and his determination.
To them fell the protection of the team. The safety of the family.
They fought their battles differently, but they fought them just the same.
Though Eliot could Mastermind, and Nate could be a Hitter. But they belonged where they were, with the other guy at their back.
Any other time, they might have left it at that. Any other day, any other close call, and they might have lapsed into silence, Nate thinking, Eliot resting, and shared not another word. They'd already said everything that needed saying, after all.
But today, Eliot had been in that water and he had prayed.
And Nate had been in that water also, and had also prayed.
So Eliot let down just one protective wall inside his chest and said, "Thought I was gonna die. And you know what?"
Nate met him with equal sincerity. "What?"
"I realized that the only regret I'd carry was that I was leaving them. Leaving you. With no one to watch your backs."
Nate nodded. "If it happened, I'd find someone. I wouldn't leave them vulnerable."
The relief of hearing Nate say it was enough to made Eliot dizzy. To know that they would have someone to watch over them even if he was gone. To know that there would be another to bleed and break in their place. The team would be safe. Eliot had lived, but he could die just as easily tomorrow.
But now he would do it with that certainty's peace.
"Thank you for that."
And Nate's heart thumped with what he'd almost lost. Trust, unshakeable, unending. Loyalty without limits.
Nate swallowed. "But I won't let it happen, Eliot. No matter what."
Eliot chuckled. "You gonna follow us around? Fish me out of trouble every time?"
But Nate was utterly serious when he said, "If I have to."
One of Eliot's eyebrows rose. "Not much of a retirement, then. Or is the great Nate Ford finally bored without the game and the chase?"
Nate couldn't help the half smile that crawled up one side of his mouth. "Surprised?"
"No. Pissed." Eliot raised one shoulder in a shrug. "I thought you'd go another year."
"Ah." Nate let the smile widen. "Who won the pool, then?"
"Who do you think?"
Nate nodded, understanding and not terribly surprised – Parker was downright dangerous in a betting pool, after all. Then he fixed his gaze back on his Hitter. His Hitter, no matter who else Eliot ever protected or fought for or what Mastermind he followed. Eliot was Nate's. Like they were all Nate's. And would be until his bones rotted to nothing.
Eliot may have found his peace, or all the peace he ever wanted to admit to needing, but Nate was not done.
"Eliot. When you were in that water…"
Eliot pulled himself against the couch, sitting up a bit more. He shook his head and made his still-damp hair swish against his shoulders.
"I'll make you a deal."
"If you can pretend that you didn't stop being Nate Ford for a few minutes there, I'll pretend I didn't stop being nothing but a Hitter."
Nate could read the vulnerability in Eliot's eyes and his throat felt too thick to even consider speaking – he could scarcely breathe.
But Eliot's courage did not fail him.
"'Cause if I don't, if I have to tell you my other regret and everything that comes with it, neither one of us will ever be able to forget it. And how are you gonna send me to break my hands on people's heads if you know what I'm not gonna say?"
Eliot made a not-nice smile.
"So let's pretend you don't know. And I don't know. And you be Nate Ford and I'll be Eliot Spencer and we'll keep being us. Deal?"
Nate forced himself to answer.
"And what if I didn't want to be that Nate Ford anymore? What if I wanted to be a better one?"
Eliot went still.
Nate rose from his seat and crossed the floor between them.
"What if I could be Nate Ford and you could be Eliot Spencer and we didn't have to forget the rest of it?"
"Not forget," Eliot corrected him at once. "Just pretend to forget."
Nate gave a wan smile. "When have you ever known me to willingly forget something about you? About any of you?"
Eliot almost shot back a comment about Nate's drinking, but he caught the look in the Mastermind's eyes and stopped it behind his teeth.
He remembered what he had thought – had prayed. He has to bury another son. He kept me from falling all the way down.
Nate had always been the more broken of the two of them, his walls and protections and the layers around his emotions cracked and crumbling and solid as a sieve. The torn places in his heart and soul were visible to even an untrained eye when he wasn't in the middle of a con, and sometimes when he was.
Nate was better now – Eliot could see that much in his eyes. A life with Sophie, love and redemption and freedom from guilt, these things had healed some of the wounds in his spirit.
But some things could never be enough.
Nate reached down and put a hand on Eliot's shoulder. It was a gesture he had repeated countless times over the years they were a part of the team. It had signalled anything from 'be patient' to 'stand down' to 'thank you.'
Today, Eliot could only read fear, and grief, and love in it.
And he couldn't let Nate feel it alone.
Eliot closed his eyes and knew he was leaning into that touch and there was nothing in the world that could stop him from doing it.
Nate gripped Eliot's shoulder much harder than he probably should, given the bruising and the ribs and the breathing problems and everything else, but he would rather cut his hand off than let go. Eliot was alive. Nate could sense the strong heart pulsing under his fingers, could feel the rise and fall of the powerful chest, and it meant more than he could ever explain.
Nate felt his voice cracking before he even started speaking.
"I hope you know...I hope you've always known. I don't...I'm not good at…"
And, once again, as always, Eliot saved him.
Eliot opened his eyes and looked into Nate's and his gaze was steady.
"Damn right you're not good at it." And he cracked the tiny, warm smile that was only for the team. Only from his heart. "Yeah. I know."
"Good." Nate tightened his grip even more. "So do I."