A/N: Warning for some language and brief talk of self-harm - not glorified. Also, there is much angst.

Chapter 10

On flat city streets in clear weather, Lucille handled like a dream for a vehicle of her length and bulk. A dream that ocassionally turned nightmarish if Parker was allowed behind the wheel which was to say, as rarely as possible.

Lucille wasn't built for mountain driving in severe weather though, Shelley had been correct about that. And that was why, when Hardison had come running back to the van after his communal with nature, breathlessly informing them that at least some of the Koreans they had thought to be ahead of them were actually only just now arriving, and coupling that with the need to intercept Eliot before they completely lost him again, Sophie had demanded in no uncertain terms that Nate yield the driver's seat to her.

After all, she was the only one of the team who had ever driven the Yungas Road in Bolivia, more than once in oversized overloaded ramshackle lorries. During the rainy season.

Even Parker didn't have that claim to fame.

And with her driving, Nate was free to have a politely-worded but very firm discussion over the coms with Shelley, wherein he managed to alert Shelley of the Koreans' pending surprise, and learn from him that the firefight had been against a completely new, heretofore unknown party, that the survivors weren't talking, and that Atheron was NOT one of those survivors.

Shelley's side of the conversation took on a decidedly less polite tone when Nate informed him of the team's change of plans, and their current location. Nate was simply performing his due diligence: it wouldn't do to get caught up in anyone's crossfire up on the mountain. And he made it abundantly clear to Shelley that the team wasn't asking his permission.

There was no way to know just how many Koreans were congregating on the area and if any of them might come upon Eliot before the team did. Sophie had already dealt with the car Hardison spotted, in a textbook PIT maneuver that had left Hardison yelping, Parker cheering, and Nate silently grasping Lucille's armrests. It was quite gratifying to know she could still surprise Nate like that, from time to time.

Despite the car's obviously armored weight, Lucille pushed through without much difficulty, and they left Tableface and his passenger sliding into a ditch as they sped forward, up the mountain. At least that was two down, who knew how many to go.

For the last few miles though, as the storm settled lower, she had been playing cat and mouse with a second sedan, a twin to the one they had just left in the ditch. It appeared and disappeared on the road ahead, through veils of slushy rain, just beginning to switch over to snow. Sophie didn't dare try to get closer. For now it seemed the the driver hadn't noticed them and wasn't in too much of a hurry, even if the Koreans in the other car had managed to get a call through to them. Hardison had choked down any pain he might share with his beloved van's injury, and was tracing their route on GPS. There were no side roads for quite a while between here and the cabin, so Sophie felt confident dropping behind the sedan far enough to lose sight of it.

They could only hope this was the route Eliot had chosen to take off the mountain.

Sophie squinted through the shifting snow. What was that dark shape ahead? A dark shape with...glowing headlights. A vehicle but more importantly...

"That's Eliot!" Parker leaned forward between the two front seats and pointed unnecessarily at the figure standing next to the stalled vehicle on the road ahead.

The vehicle that was in the middle of the road, stationary, and that she was in great danger of simply plowing into. The next moment, they saw Eliot begin to turn toward them and why were his hands raised like he was surrendering? Sophie whispered some very unladylike things under her breath and began to brake hard, anticipating the heavy van's unpleasant reaction. She allowed Lucille to slalom and spin and finally come to a rest side-on to and less than fifteen feet from the tableau ahead.

And what a tableau it was. There were men on the other side of Eliot, guns trained on him and now, on them as well. The men had military bearing and dress, but they were certainly not Shelley's people. Must be mercenaries of some kind.

"We've got to get him in the van. Shelley's on his way but he won't make it in time."

Sophie hadn't realized Nate was still in contact with Shelley and had informed him of the situation. Lucille had come to rest with her passenger side facing Eliot, and Hardison immediately slid open the big side door, letting in wind and snow.


Hardison saw the very moment when Eliot's confused look turned to one of horror. "Get out of here, Hardison! Damnit! Get the hell out of here!"

And indeed, several of the mercenaries from the two vehicles behind Eliot (and good Lord, there were more making their way down the road!) had trained their weapons upon Lucille. Eliot turned back toward the mercenaries and yelled something, but with the gusting wind, Hardison couldn't make it out. Their leader yelled something in return and Eliot took a step toward them, away from his team, hands still raised, placating. Oh hell no! That man was not gonna be anyone's sacrificial lamb if Hardison could help it!

Heedless of his own safety, Hardison stepped down out of Lucille and stalked forward, and several additional mercenaries trained their weapons on him. Right now, he simply didn't care. This whole thing just wasn't right. It was like watching a scene out of a movie, but at the same time it was all to hyper-real.

"Well I guess we're all gonna get shot then 'cause we ain't leavin' here without yore sorry ass! Get. In. The. Van!" He was almost close enough to touch Eliot now.

Eliot must have noticed the movement of the weapons. He turned toward Hardison again: battered, bloodied, and oh so angry to see him out of the van. But before he could say a word, Hardison was in his face, grabbing at his shoulders.

"Do you know you've been my brother for longer than anyone ever, Eliot? Anyone! And I ain't leaving you behind!" Eliot moved as if to free himself from Hardison's grip, but at that moment, a bullet pinged off the asphault at their feet: a warning shot. Eliot was between the mercenaries and himself, and they seemed reluctant to shoot Eliot to get to him. Lucille with her occupants however, was fair game, and one man squeezed off a short burst at her, stitching a pattern along her flank.

Hardison would have to put off being incensed for now because at that same moment, the wind shifted and and the nearly sub-audible throbbing that had been in the background of his consciousness resolved itself into the thump of a heavy-duty helicopter rotor, not yet visible through the blowing snow. Many of the mercenaries turned toward the sound. Taking advantage of their moment of distraction, Eliot yelled something loud and angry at Hardison and pushed him toward Lucille, but even Hardison could tell his friend lacked his usual strength and so he took the chance to grab Eliot tightly and pull him toward the van. Eliot struggled against him, but he was uncoordinated and slow.

Hardison would forever remember the terror of this day, but he didn't flinch when another round pinged off the van mere inches from his head. Eliot tried both to push Hardison into the van and pull away from him at the same time, but then there was a sudden jumble of arms reaching for them both, and Nate and Parker physically dragging them in while trying to slide the door shut all at the same time Lucille was turning, putting her rear to the gunfire and surging away, and Nate said "yeah, we're clear" which didn't make any sense, but then more gunfire erupted above and behind them and Hardison realized the helicopter must be strafing the ground.

And there was blood on his hands.

He didn't seem to be leaking anywhere, and the only thing that hurt was his shoulder from bumping into Lucille's doorframe when Nate pulled him in. Nate had returned to the front seat, talking to Sophie or Shelley, he couldn't tell, but there was no blood on him. Before Hardison could reach for Parker, to make sure she was okay, Eliot got into his face.

"The HELL was that, Hardison?! The hell are you doing here? I told you not to come after me! You could have got yourselves killed! You still might!"

"Yeah? What was that back there, huh? Were they gonna take you out for a beer? Ya know, sometimes gettin' through to you is like talkin' to a brick wall. On'y, brick walls got the sense to STAY PUT! And who the hell's blood is this?!"

Hardison wasn't exactly given to panic attacks, though the sight of excessive blood did make him a little woozy, and extreme danger had a tendency to cause his heart to race. He retreated to his computer chair, and leaned forward, breathing deeply.

"Eliot's." And then Hardison saw it. Eliot remained crouched on Lucille's floor, and Parker was trying to assess a fresh wound in his upper right biceps. But Eliot just kept growling and yelling about following orders and how the team coulda been killed and what the hell were they thinkin' tryin' to follow him...and then Parker poked Eliot hard. Right next to that wound and Eliot finally, for one blessed moment, shut up.

Hardison didn't know if he wanted to retch at the sight before him, or simply gaze in wonder as Parker worked. Because that was a lot of fresh blood still actively oozing out of their best friend and Parker didn't seem in the least phased by it. Eliot had squeezed his eyes shut and seemed to he focused on trying to control his ragged breathing.

Hardison took another deep breath of his own and started again. He was disconcerted to hear the dangerous edge to his own words. "Wanna explain why you were givin' up back there, Eliot?"

He wasn't sure what he expected from Eliot in return, certainly not a conciliatory reply. Parker reached over to one of Lucille's cabinets and pulled out their well-stocked first aid kit.

"They weren't gonna kill me, Hardison..."

"Oh. That's nice. What, were they plannin' to just bust out a few teeth? Yank out a couple fingernails? Maybe sell you to some foreign agency that you pissed off in the past? I ask you again man: what the hell was that?"

Eliot noticed Parker had pulled out the suture kit and was trying to get him to move somewhere she could have better access to his arm. "This needs stitches."

"Parker, it can wait 'til we stop. Just wrap it. I've had worse, I ain't gonna drop dead in the next few minutes..."

Parker's hands stilled and Hardison felt his eyes go wide. Not the best response. Not at all.

Parker's studious frown gave way then, but not to tears. Instead, her face went blank and she tucked the suture kit away, instead pulling out some gauze and wrapping. She dropped them in Eliot's lap, turned her back to him, and pulled herself up into one of Lucille's rear seats.

Not. Good. At all. Because that right there? That was Parker shutting down.

Hardison had seen it enough in the early days. Not for a long time now, and he had hoped never to see it again. But here it was and in that moment, Hardison hated Eliot. Hated him with every fiber of his being, because after everything, everything this team had gone through together, Eliot was backsliding. Or maybe, it had all been a sham to begin with? Maybe, Eliot had never crawled out of the mire of his past. And Hardison hated himself for thinking that.

"Park..." But Eliot cut himself off, and just stared for a short moment at the back of her seat. Then, silently, he shifted himself to sit more comfortably back against Lucille's side wall, rolled up his sleeve and proceeded to bandage his own arm one-handed with a deftness that was disquieting when Hardison considered all the practice he must have had. It was almost enough to make him want to offer his assistance blood or no, but...not when he glanced again at Parker, jaw clenched and eyes staring downward, arms wrapped tight around herself. No, let the damn fool fix himself this time. Hardison wanted nothing to do with him at the moment.

He tore open a heavy-duty pre-moistened towel and scrubbed Eliot's blood off his hands, wanting nothing more than to turn back to his computer screens, needing something to distract his mind, but he caught sight of Eliot holding out a small flip phone toward him. He didn't immediately take it.

"Those guys, they took Atherton's wife and daughters. They're probably dead but maybe...this could help you find them. At least give 'em a proper burial."

He took the phone wordlessly, and Eliot turned away.

Hardison looked down at the phone, but he couldn't do anything with it just yet. His hands wouldn't stop shaking.

Sophie fixed every bit of her concentration on keeping Lucille on the snow slick road. She had removed her own earbud to better focus on her driving, but she listened to Nate's half of his conversation with Shelley.

"Yeah, we have Eliot, he's okay. We could use that safe house now." He tried to keep his tone light and businesslike, but Sophie could detect the strain, the exhaustion.

She heard him sign off with Shelley, and he removed his own earbud with a sigh. "They very likely don't have all the stragglers rounded up yet. Shelley's Jeep is going to be passing us in a few minutes. Follow him when he does."

Sophie nodded and focused on the drive they had ahead of them. If she listened too closely to the conversation behind her, and what she could see of the rest of their team in the rearview mirror, she'd be forced to pull the van over and personally strangle one very bloody idiot of a hitter.

And from the way Nate sat stiff and silently brooding in the passenger seat, staring at but not really seeing the white-washed landscape around them, he'd gladly offer his assistance.

Eliot leaned his head back against the van's wall and closed his eyes. Hardison hadn't been too far off the truth: he'd had no idea what Thompson had planned for him when he was done with his questioning. Eliot would not have been able to give him what he wanted any more than Atherton had.

He would likely have been killed.


And Moreau was still out there, still a danger to the team.

Damn it. He was tired of this.

So tired.

Eliot spoke to Atherton exactly twice after his escape and return to friendly territory. The first time was in an empty hallway. It hadn't been planned, but the moment Eliot saw the General, something in him sparked and he simply grabbed the man, running him up against a wall, not unlike he had just done in the cabin. That first time though, there had been no fear in Atherton's eyes.

Eliot had looked for it, looked for any tiniest thing he could exploit, some little crack that would give Eliot the proof he needed, but the man was calm and confident. He even smiled.

"Spencer! May I be the first to congratulate you on your commendation? Single-handedly taking out a terrorist's camp is certainly not an easy feat..."

Eliot growled low in his throat, but he had to release the man, he could hear footsteps approaching from around a corner. "You an' I both know why it was 'single-handedly,' General." He sneered the last word. "Keep yer nose clean. The moment I have any proof..." The footsteps slowed, and turned the corner into their hallway. It was Vance. Before he could approach close enough for greetings, Eliot turned to leave.

"Spencer." Eliot stopped but didn't turn. "Enjoy your well-earned civilian life." Then Atherton turned to greet Vance, and Eliot walked away.

Atherton had not become entangled with Moreau until after Eliot had resigned as Moreau's enforcer, or at least, he had never been aware of him. When he heard as much through the grapevine, Eliot kept tabs. He even briefly contemplated simply killing him. But that would not have been enough. He wanted the man's sins known publicly. The thought of involving his new team to con the man into a confession never crossed Eliot's mind. This was his alone to deal with.

The next time he spoke directly to Atherton had been many years removed, but Eliot was not surprised to feel that hatred burn as strongly as it had when it was new. He had been keeping watch outside the Medical Examiner's office while the team explained things to Atherton. When he walked out clutching the envelope containing the new life Hardison had granted him, Eliot once more got in his face.

"Let me be abundantly clear, General...This is your one chance at fixing your trash heap of a life. You don't deserve it but your family does. So don't screw it up." Eliot loosed his grip, but didn't release Atherton just yet. He searched the man's eyes. "I wanna know one thing: Why didn't you ever try to have me silenced after that? Were ya hopin' I'd simply blow my own brains out once I got bored with 'civilian life'?"

Atherton swallowed and this time, he couldn't quite meet Eliot's stare. Eliot let go of him. "Thought so."

Shelley stood to the side of the closed garage door as Eliot's team exited their big black van. It might have been hyper vigilance in the wake of the recent events but he felt there was something seriously wrong here.

He didn't mean the security of the rural property they were going to hole up at. He had sent people ahead to clear it and be sure there would be no nasty surprises. Even now there were unseen men in the woods, and they would keep watch for as long as Shelley required it.

No, the wrongness was with Eliot's team.

First through the small garage door into the house were Parker and Eliot. Her with first aid kit in hand, him allowing himself to be herded before her. There was something of defeat in his demeanor. He had fresh injuries, but he was upright and moving on his own so that was good, at least. Shelley wanted to follow but he stopped himself. He had the same field medic training Eliot did, and they had both picked up many additional skills over the years, but Eliot seemed to trust the crazy one, and to follow them now felt like an intrusion into something...deeply personal. Eliot had something here, and it wouldn't be right to interfere.

He caught Ford watching after the two of them with an inscrutable expression on his face. Then, as if sensing Shelley's curiosity, Ford turned and met his gaze briefly, before going into the house himself.

Something was deeply wrong here. Shelley turned back to offer Hardison and Devereaux help with their supplies, half expecting to be ignored or outright shunned, but the hacker didn't bat an eye and merely passed several equipment bags to him. His thoughts seemed miles away, and gone was the humor from his eyes.

Parker seemed...flustered.

She had directed Eliot into the first bedroom she could find upon entering the house, which happened to be the master bedroom with attached bath. After what happened in the van, he had expected Parker to simply leave him alone there and so he reached for the big first aid kit she was carrying. She snatched it away.

"No. You taught me how to do this, you are going to LET me do this!" Eliot regarded her silently for a moment, then nodded. He sat gratefully on the closed toilet lid and let her cut off his shirt, and start in on the bloodied bandaging on his back. He was so tired. He closed his eyes again.

Eliot's behavior could be described as that of a wounded animal: he'd hole up alone when injured. He just wasn't used to having help. It had been so long since he'd had someone he could rely on. And he really didn't like being fussed over: just take care of the problem, and move on. Simple as that. He didn't need fussy Sophie, or nauseous Hardison, or Nate with his alcoholic's trembling hands trying to stitch him up. And Parker? Well, she was damned nuts.

He sat on the toilet lid and tried to find a position whereby he could clean out the deep cut on the back of his shoulder. Parker was damned nuts and this time, her off-script actions had gotten him involved in a knife fight. Well, it started as a knife ambush, the fight itself didn't last long after that. But Eliot was left with this reminder to deal with, and a hell of a grumpy worldview right now.

There came a tap at the door.

He growled. "I don't want any of Hardison's idea of good takeout food. Go away!"

He would have preferred to have cleaned himself up at his own house, in the foothills above Los Angeles, but the Leverage offices had been closer and he'd left his personal vehicle here. He'd hate to get blood on the leather seats.

The door opened, and Eliot growled again. He growled a third time when he realized the intruder was none other than Parker.

"I'm sorry. I want to help." She stood there in the doorway. He almost growled her away, but the earnestness he saw in her gave him pause. She almost did look contrite, or at least, like she was trying to understand how to be contrite. She wanted to learn. This right here was the Parker everyone had been trying to draw out. So who was he to shove her away?

Eliot blinked his eyes open, he had almost fallen asleep, there in the bathroom.

Who was he to shove her away?

So he had taught Parker everything he knew about first aid, unofficially, and she soaked it all up. Just like she did when he taught her to fight. And he came to trust her attention to detail, her dexterity, and her judgement.

But tonight, she was flustered.

She managed the cleaning and restitching of the wounds on his back, and the new one on his arm: a simple graze, no bullet left behind. She had probed at his ribs and collarbone, movements still very precise but there was a tenseness, and when she was done with him and it came to cleaning up the supplies, she fumbled and dropped things.

"Hey," he tried to keep his voice gentle, and reached for her hands. She pulled them away. He grabbed them again and held firmly, but gently. This time, she didn't try to pull away. In the early days, Parker would never have trusted anyone to hold her hands like that. They were the most important things to her. The fact she was letting Eliot hold them despite her obvious distress and her reluctance to meet his eyes, spoke volumes. "Hey? Talk to me? What's up, Parker?"

She did pull away then.

"Do you want any hot or cold packs?" Her question was clipped, to the point. Unemotional.

She wasn't ready to talk. "Hot."

Parker left without another word.

Hardison had taken over the dining room table, and was currently arms deep in the safe house's electronic security. It was pretty impressive, but he still managed to cut through it like a hot knife through butter. And he'd already improved it.

While he worked on that, he downloaded the little cell phone's brains to his computer, and contemplated the state of things.

Parker hadn't disappeared when they arrived here, which was sometimes her M.O. when she became overwhelmed. For that, he was beyond grateful. As soon as they had secreted one very bullet-riddled Lucille into the safe house garage (and Hardison choked down his feelings about that, he couldn't afford to dwell on Lucille's condition right now), Parker had grabbed the first aid kit and swiftly herded Eliot across the garage and into the house. Eliot went without a word. For which Hardison was also grateful. If he had dared open his mouth to Parker again within earshot, Hardison might well have punched him. And he was secretly afraid that had Eliot even wanted to defend himself physically, he was in no condition to do so.

Sophie was keeping him silent company. There was nothing else for her to do right now, and Nate had wandered off...somewhere. She had found some bagged tea in the safe house's pantry: grocery store standard, but better than nothing at all. She sat watching her mug grow cold.

Hardison caught a movement in his peripheral vision, and he glanced up to see Parker over in the open kitchen. She seemed to be fiddling with some microwavable heating packs, but she was fumbling them, and her stance spoke of frustration. But it was the look on her face: the blank, bleak stare, that propelled Hardison from his seat and to her side. Before he could even utter a word, Parker turned toward him and quite literally collapsed against his chest, snaking her arms tightly around his ribs and he was reminded how sure and strong her grip always was. His sweet girl clung as tightly to him as to any building ledge she had ever come across. Startled, Hardison hesitated only a fraction of a second before he returned the hug full-force.

For a moment Parker was still, face pressed hard against his collarbone, then her breath hitched. "We're losing him Hardison. I'm losing my brother all over again and it's worse this time because I know it's happening and I still can't stop it!"

She was quiet then save for the deepest nearly-silent sobs he had ever experienced from her. He'd seen Parker cry before, probably more often than she ever wanted anyone to, and he had even held her through it before. But this wasn't the same as when they were on the mountain, separated by snowsuits and surrounded by strangers. She had wept gently then, and Hardison had been both startled and honored to be her teddy bear.

This was different. This was soul-shattering, intimate, and shared. He could feel her heartbeat, strong yet fluttery, and the tears soaking, searing through his tee shirt, matched now by those trickling down his own cheeks, and he rested his cheek on the top of Parker's head, and squeezed her as tightly as he dared, as if he could mend together the slivers of her breaking heart. And he made her a promise.

"We ain't gonna lose him, mama. We ain't. He's our family. He ain't goin' anywhere. We won't let him."

After a few minutes Parker pulled away, wiping at her eyes. She was done for now, and Hardison let her go. She retrieved the heat packs, and left the kitchen.

Sophie had sat silent through the entire exchange, intently studying her mug, but there was a suspicious dampness and redness to her own eyes that had nothing to do with the lack of sleep they were all experiencing. Hardison didn't comment, but he pulled his chair and computer closer to Sophie before returning to his work.

Nate entered the master bedroom without knocking. Eliot had been relatively cleaned up, freshly-bandaged, and was sitting still on the edge of his turned-down bed. He looked too exhausted to even finish lying down, though he mustered plenty of ire when he saw Nate.

"You don't wanna be here right now, Nate. In the mornin' we're gonna talk about you listenin' to me and not gettin' the team hurt."

"Funny thing, Eliot. The only member of this team that's been hurt so far is you." Physically, that is. But he didn't say it out loud.

Eliot glared. "Don't make a joke of this! You know damn well what I mean! I sent Shelley to you for a reason, you shoulda listened to him and not gotten him or yourselves involved in this!"

"But we are involved, Eliot. Anything to do with Moreau has to do with us now, and you know it. Only that wasn't Moreau was it? And it wasn't the Koreans, either. Who was it?"

Eliot chose not to answer that, and Nate eyed the two small bottles sitting on his nightstand. The seal had been broken on the antibiotics, but not the painkillers.

He picked up the sealed bottle, opened it, and held it out toward Eliot. "Parker left these here for a reason."

Eliot ignored the offering. "Don't want 'em, Nate. Can't be compromised."

"Bullshit, Eliot! You're already 'compromised.' You're about a strong as a kitten right now. Look, we're in the safehouse you wanted us in, we're being watched over by the guy you sent to protect us! Let your damn guard down for one night and take the damned pills!" Eliot made no move to do so.

"You know what Eliot? Getting you to listen, trying to talk sense to you...it's like trying to wrangle a f..." A four-year-old. He had been going to say: 'like trying to wrangle a four-year-old' but sudden images of Sam's bedtime capers had him crashing to a halt. He choked on the last word. No, no he was NOT going there tonight.

"Maybe because you haven't talked sense yet, Nate! I still don't know what you're tryin' to accomplish gettin' involved with this! Besides getting yourselves killed! It...my life, I ain't worth that." And there it was. Nate stood in shock, taken aback.

"No pain killers. They slow me down an' make me fuzzy."

Nate stepped closer and slammed the pill bottle down on the table next to the antibiotics. "I don't think you get it, Eliot. You aren't going anywhere right now." He turned to leave without another word. He'd been putting off calling Bonnano again but right now, speaking to a very angry Detective Captain of the Massachusetts State Police was preferable to dealing further with Eliot.

Parker didn't like crying. Tears were a weakness. Sophie would know how to use tears to her advantage, but tears had never done Parker any good in the past. Crying drew attention and Parker didn't like attention.

Lately when Parker would help Eliot get fixed up, he wouldn't say much. She knew it was because he trusted her. But tonight, the silence hadn't been companionable and she'd felt all twitchy when she worked on him. She dropped things and fumbled a little, but Eliot didn't say anything, he didn't even growl. It had been a long time since Eliot or any of the team had made her feel all...stabby...when they touched her, but it had happened tonight when Eliot held her hands. Like he was a stranger, masquerading as Eliot.

She hadn't meant to cry on Hardison tonight. But she hadn't meant to cry on him on that mountain either, both times it had just happened. But both times had also been...kind of nice. Not the crying part. The Hardison part had been kind of nice.

Parker stood in the bedroom doorway holding an armload of heat packs and listening to Eliot and Nate yell at each other.

Nate turned and saw her in the doorway. As he slipped past her into the hall, he stopped. "He's in pain, but he won't take anything for it. He needs his rest."

"I won't leave him alone."

"That's what I'm counting on. Don't let him out of your sight this time." Nate stalked down the hall, leaving her alone in the doorway.

Parker glared after him. Her fingers itched and she was sorely tempted to taser Nate for that comment. But her hands were currently full and then she remembered that Nate had been just as worried about Eliot as the rest of the team was, and Nate didn't do worried well. At all.

She stepped into the room quietly, and Eliot glanced up at her.

"Hardison kind of wants to kill you, and Nate is really mad, but I'm not." Parker put down her stack of heat packs. "Why won't you just take the pills?"

"Drop it Parker. I haven't slept properly in days. So, just leave me alone and let me sleep."

She stepped back as he gingerly stretched out on the bed trying not to wince or show any other weakness. Idiot. Crying on Hardison must have helped because she didn't feel quite as fluster-y as before and she finally decided to just let Eliot growl at her if he wanted, but she was going to help him. After a little bit of fussing, he finally allowed her to tuck pillows and heat packs where he directed. He ended up mostly on his back because of his ribs, but tilted a bit to keep pressure off the stitched wounds. All in all, Eliot looked quite pitiful, she decided. Parker started piling blankets on him.

"Parker, stop! Leave the quilt off, it's too warm!" So she relented.

"Now, go away and let me sleep."

She regarded him for a long moment, eyes narrowed. "No."

He glared. She stared right back. "You want me to leave? Try throwing me out."

Eliot's jaw clenched but he didn't say a word. Parker toed off her shoes and walked around the end of his bed, gathering up his discarded quilt.

There was plenty of room on the bed and she climbed up behind him, wrapping herself in the quilt like a cocoon. Outside, the wind gusted and the house shook, but stood firm.

Eliot's face was turned away from Parker, but she finally felt him stop glaring. "Fine. Just don't stare at me all night...and don't you dare poke me."

Parker hmphed, and closed her eyes.

Shelly was staying here. He had made Eliot a promise, and he hadn't fulfilled it yet.

He had been concerned that Ford would try to dismiss him again, or that the team would try to run now that they had Eliot back, but no one had made a move to do so. They seemed much more reasonable now.

He needed to talk one on one with Eliot, he needed answers, but they would have to wait until morning. For now, the storm was too socked in for them all to do anything but rest. Between his shadowy people outside watching the perimeter, and those out still trolling the mountain roads for mercenaries and Koreans, he would have a LOT of explaining to do when he contacted Vance again. Right now, he was banking on a hell of a lot of favors and good will.

And he was about to hand one of those massive favors off to someone else. Hardison was good on a computer. Damn good, but from what Shelley could gather, he was running up against some trouble. Eliot had handed over a phone that had belonged to Atherton, and mentioned something about a kidnapping. The phone had been no issue, and Hardison had back traced all sorts of calls and such, but he needed to see some real-time above-ground imagery, and there were no satellites pointed in the direction he needed that he could hack. Ha, if he only knew!

Shelley entered the dining area. "Hardison."

The hacker looked up, suspicion written clearly on his exhausted face. "Yeah, Shelley?"

Shelley held out a cell phone. "Don't ask any questions and don't try to trace this call."

Hardison took the phone gingerly, putting it to his ear. "Ooooo...k. Yeah, Hardison here?" A moment later, his eyebrows shot up and he tucked the phone between his shoulder and ear and began typing almost to quickly to follow. "Yeah, yeah...gimme jus' a min...got it! Uh, thanks?" He dropped the phone back into his hand and glanced at it, but the connection was now severed.

Shelley took the phone back from him. "Make sure you lose that information when you're done with it." Hardison nodded distractedly, he was deeply immersed in his work now. And Shelley had to admit: he might be young and a little cocky, but he was not nearly as innocent as Shelley had originally thought. This entire team of Eliot's, they were something Shelley hadn't seen in a very long time. He found himself shocked at the depth of their devotion to his friend and to their work, and a little angered that Eliot was the only one who couldn't see it. Or maybe, refused to see it.

A noise behind him drew his attention. Ford had entered the kitchen and was prowling through the cabinets as if looking for a distraction. Shelley glanced again at the table where Hardison was completely caught up in his work. Devereaux though, was watching him closely. He made a decision. The team needed time to rest and reset, but Shelley wasn't just going to let slide what he had witnessed in the garage.

"Ford, Devereaux. Talk to you?"

They glanced at him curiously, but followed him back out into the main room of the house.

Shelley stopped and turned toward them. "Okay, I'm gonna tell it to you straight: Eliot'll kill me if he even suspects I told you any of this but...I really think you should know. You guys are...good for him, I think. You can't let him pull away from you...not like the last time."

Nate's eyes narrowed and he said, "We aren't planning on it..." at the same time Devereaux cut in with, "'Last time'?"

"Eliot gives his all to those he cares about but when he's hurting...he pulls away from them." They nodded. They knew this, and they knew he didn't mean just physical hurt.

"Seriously. Eliot's gonna kill me." Shelley ran a hand over his hair, an unconscious gesture when he was nervous, and he was sure Devereaux marked the movement. "...has he ever talked much about his Army days?"

They shook their heads no.

"I thought not, but you need to know the basics. Eliot blames himself for the loss of his entire team. Hell, I blame myself too: I was supposed to be on that mission...but I wasn't, because of an injury. You have to understand Ford, it...shattered his confidence."

Devereaux watched him with a calm understanding, but Ford looked ready to object.

Shelley pressed forward. "He's perfectly confident in his own abilities, in taking care of himself. But in allowing himself to form attachments to people any more? Not at all. He came back physically intact but after he was discharged he just...drifted away. I got him to help me with an off-the-books job in Pakistan and he seemed...a little better. That was after he started working with you all, wasn't it? But he's still been distant...When he called me to come watch over you, it was the first I had heard from him in almost a year."

Devereaux spoke quietly, mostly to herself. "Survivor guilt, but more than that, I think..."

Ford nodded. "We don't intend to just let him drift away from us. Eliot's an idiot if he thinks he can just leave this team and we won't fight him every step of the way."

And Shelley thought these four people, for all their quirks and self-destructive behavior, may have been the best thing to ever happen to Eliot Spencer.

Parker woke with a start. Eliot was twisting under the covers and muttering. Parker inched her way upward until she was leaning against the headboard, still wrapped tight in her quilt cocoon. She briefly wondered if that made her a Parker-pillar, or a cater-Parker? Maybe just a Parker Caterpillar?

She wanted to giggle at the thought, but it might scare Eliot awake, and he'd warned her before not to do so. Parker trusted Eliot's reflexes, but he didn't always trust his own, it seemed.

Eliot's muttering grew louder and Parker caught her own name, then another name she didn't recognize. She tried calling to Eliot softly, then a little louder. That didn't wake him, and it only seemed to distress him further.

Unwrapping one arm from her coccoon, Parker reached toward him, though she kept the rest of herself as far back as possible. She poked Eliot, on his sore shoulder. At the second, much firmer poke, Eliot sat bolt upright with a gasp, and glanced around frantically.

When he caught sight of Parker, doing her best to appear perfectly safe and healthy and not in any sort of danger, he drew his knees up, leaned over them and buried his face in his crossed arms. His breathing seemed too quick and shallow.

Parker wasn't sure if he was entirely awake yet or still caught up in the nightmare, so she didn't dare touch him again yet.

Talking. That might help.

"How long have your nightmares been about us Eliot?" No answer.

"Eliot, who's 'Lizzie'?" Eliot twitched at the question. Okay, so he was at least hearing Parker. She reached a hand out slowly and gently placed it on his shoulder. He seemed a little too warm. Low-grade fever? Eliot tensed, but didn't react otherwise. Okay, so he was not completely stuck in the nightmare.

It was quiet for a little while then, just Eliot's unsteady breathing and the thump of her own heart. And then he whispered: "Why aren't you afraid of me?"

Well. That was a stupid question. And stupid questions did not deserve answers.

Parker leaned closer to more clearly see his face, still tucked against his crossed arms. There was a gimace on his features and Parker knew well enough by now that this was not Eliot's "I'm gonna break Hardison's fingers" grimace. Eliot was actually showing pain, the stubborn jackass. Parker imagined him with a cartoon donkey's tail and ears, like the naughty boys on that old Disney movie, Pinocchio, and she wanted to giggle. But of course that wouldn't be appropriate, so she shoved the silly thoughts aside.

"If you're going to have nightmares anyway, Eliot, you might as well just take the pain killers."

Eliot shook his head, voice gruff. "They don't give me nightmares, Parker. They just...make it harder to wake up from 'em. To wake up an' know where I am. I gotta know where I am when I wake up or..."

Parker stewed on this for a moment. "Just take the damned pills. I'll wake you up. Trust me." He tilted his head and stared sideways at her for a long moment. He almost seemed afraid, but that couldn't be right. But then he reached toward his nightstand and grabbed the pill bottle, glanced at the label. He swallowed two, then an entire bottle of water.

Parker waited while he gingerly settled on his back again. She snuggled down into her coccoon, but left one arm out and placed a hand lightly on Eliot's shoulder. He tensed again, but closed his eyes. Parker waited, until Eliot's breathing evened out and she could feel all the tension leave his body. Until she was sure he was asleep again, she would not close her own eyes. Even then, she did not sleep.

Many foster homes weren't entirely safe. Some were outright dangerous. The girl who would become Parker didn't like the way their current foster 'father' looked at Mattie, who was barely four. Mattie was too young to see it for himself, and Parker barely understood the source of her own unease, but every night she'd hug her brother tightly to herself, all night long, and she wouldn't sleep. She did this so that he couldn't wander off. So that no one could take him away from her without her noticing.