AN: I had something else in mind entirely as I started writing this tag to The Rundown Job. The story, however, did its own thing and now here we are. I'm not sure how I feel about it, but I'll publish it like this and let you decide. No point leaving it abandoned on my hard drive.
There are a few mentions in here of things that happened in tags published in my story Leverage in between, just so you know. Reading that is not necessary to understand this, but I guess it could be seen as (tiny) spoilers. There's also some spoilers for Breakfast Club.
"Only a few minutes now." Parker doesn't look at him as she says it, but there's no one else around so Eliot grunts in confirmation. They can hear Hardison checking in over the comms and he'll be done in seconds rather than minutes, but Eliot spares his words. Standing straight and keeping his face impassive are taking up most of his attention as it is.
The need to shake possible tails and leave no traces to follow had not been vocalized, but either Eliot has rubbed off on his team or they're so used to working around his paranoia they do it automatically. Either way he's grateful for the twists and turns in getting here; a hotel with a seventh-floor reception that can easily be avoided by riding the elevator right past it. His torn clothes and visible bandages stand out too much around polished desks and well-dressed businessmen.
It takes Parker stepping under Eliot's uninjured arm and guiding him into the elevator to make him realize he must have zoned out. No room for that yet; the job ain't done 'til he's in his own bed.
A couple of hours have passed since he got shot, and the pain is getting progressively harder to ignore. At first it was easy. Udall needed to be taken out, the CDC needed to be brought in, Parker and Hardison needed to be calmed down, tests needed to be taken, medics needed to be endured, Vance needed to be fully briefed, further involvement with the authorities needed to be averted. By now the only need left is to get them back home safely, and it's an awfully small bailer considering how much water Eliot's boat is taking in.
Tomorrow. He'll be home tomorrow. The job ain't done yet.
"Eliot?" Parker says as the floors slowly tick away on the display in front of them. She's too close to look at directly, so he meets her eyes in the mirror. There's a sharp focus in them he cannot interpret. "We get to that room, and we're done. Okay?"
The possible meanings of that statement take Eliot's pain away for a full second and leaves him feeling afloat.
"Hey!" Parker's fingers dig into his ribs with the command. "You didn't hit your head, don't be stupid."
Pain returning has never been as welcome.
"We're not done 'til we're home safe." Eliot tells her and she's nodding in agreement despite what she just said.
"And home is a safe place where we stay, together. Tonight, that's here. Job's done when we're home." It's hard not to wonder if she's been reading his thoughts, Eliot wouldn't put it past her.
"That's not how it works Parker. You know where home is." He doesn't say Portland out loud, is still not sure no one is listening and planning on taking advantage of this temporary weakness.
Blue hallway carpeting stretches into infinity in front of Eliot as they step out of the elevator seconds later. Hardison tells them their suite is almost all the way down the narrow strip, past endless doors. The shared rooms is an argument Eliot didn't have the energy for when Hardison booked them, one he regrets now. Separate rooms closer to the elevator would have been preferable in more ways than one.
They will need to see that he's okay though. Eliot cannot deny them that. There's a perfectly plausible scenario where all three of them died today, along with a major part of DC.
The job won't be done until he's home, and for Parker and Hardison he can stay strong until then.
Even with Parker's support every half-step on Eliot's left leg feels like getting stabbed and diagonal jolts resonate through his shoulder. It's been some time now, since he last was shot, and he'd forgotten how much it hurts. Especially once his body finally gives in and stops producing adrenaline and cortisol and whatever else it does that keep the pain at bay the first hours.
They are not strangers, Eliot and pain, and he lets it have its way. He's learnt a long time ago there is no point fighting. The only thing to do is surrender.
Despite the saline the loss of blood makes him winded, but Eliot breaths in through his nose for three hops forward then out for the same time. Following the breath all the way down to his stomach and back out, keeping it smooth through the stabs. One, two, three. One, two, three. This, is, nothing. This, is, nothing.
The slide of the door locking behind them is only a sound, a literal displacement of molecules of air, but it tangles Eliot's feet up none the less and makes him stumble. Stupid body to betray him now, stupid Parker for giving it this idea, stupid Eliot for not being stronger than this. The job's not done yet. He still hasn't made it out. There's still people around.
"Whoa," Hardison says. "It's okay man, we've got you." His hands are on Eliot now, back and hip, to help steady him around Parker and his injured shoulder.
"We're done. No one is here, we're home." Parker's fingers dig into his ribs again. It's firm enough it might hurt if it wasn't drowned in everything else.
Eliot wants to scream at Parker that someone is here, she and Hardison are. He wants to pull free of them and lock himself in one of the bedrooms and be alone with his pain. The anger is a powerful enough emotion that he should get the energy to do it.
This is Parker and Hardison. Who, when they moved in together did so in a restaurant that would need a chef. Hardison is many things, but not subtle, and Eliot knows very well what the two of them doesn't say about it. Parker has stolen an old punching bag of his and hung it in the office area. There is a guestroom with a made bed he's sworn to himself he'll never sleep in, but it's there. The two of them got together, and they didn't leave Eliot behind. Even if he had a dictionary available Eliot's sure he couldn't find the words for what he feels about that. They are also warm and strong and gentle as they guide him towards the couch.
Giving in feels like a tendon snapping or a wave engulfing him, Eliot couldn't say. He's busy keeping his feet under him and air in his lungs.
The splash of anger is gone. In its wake comes what Eliot has dreaded, if such a word can be used on something that's been less of an emotion and more of a statement of fact up until this very moment. He does fear it now, in the brief second before it takes over; the guilt, the worry, the memories those feelings drag out of the darkest corners of his mind, and the self-loathing following that.
Few jobs step out of Nate's plotting, scheming side of the field. Fewer still end up on Eliot's side. There had been the time Hardison and him were chased through the forest by a heavily armed militia. Their first clash with Moreau. Hardison suffocating in that coffin. Times when no plans, cons, or outright thefts stood a chance of getting them through. Where the fight to survive had been literal and brutal, leaving room for nothing but action and reaction.
Today, as well, they've been playing Eliot's game. The rules of which had been drilled into his teenage self, deep enough that not even everything that came after has been able to carve it away. Fear is forbidden. So is thinking about personal risks. There is a greater cause, and in light of that Eliot doesn't matter. Neither does anything he cares about. It's a harsh truth, but on the job he doesn't feel it. Cannot allow himself to. Only, he's not on the job anymore.
It's an expensive suite with a crème couch that will never get clean again after this, but it doesn't matter. Money is not one of their problems. Sitting down hurts, but so does standing so it hardly matters. At least the cushions are soft. Eliot's off center, too close to the armrest for anyone but Parker thinking it's a free seat. She eases in next to him smoothly and without causing additional pain. Hardison sits just as close on the other side and offers a bottle of Gatorade.
"You should drink that." Parker tells Eliot. He takes the bottle.
"I know," Eliot says. Only he can hardly swallow his own saliva at the moment, so it'll have to wait.
The feel of them against him itches uncomfortably. He's apparently coming down from this whether he likes it or not, job draining out through his clammy skin. He should be somewhere else. Can't stand the feeling of them touching him. Can't stand without a crutch either, unfortunately, and he left the one not made of flesh and blood on the ground in a nameless park. Eliot has used the two of them for crutches plenty by now. This shouldn't be different.
Leaning forward to minimize the contact turns out to be a supremely bad idea. The upside is he hurts so much he forgets everything else for a moment. The cold, the company, the concept of thought; all gone. The downside is he comes back to a hand between his shoulder blades and Hardison's voice too close to his ear for that kind of volume. "I mean, I know the EMT stitched you up," it says. "But that can't be doing you any favors." A thug on his uninjured shoulder suggests he takes his weight off his elbows.
The idea has its merits, but Eliot wants the touches to stop more than he wants the pain to go away. He feels like he'll be viciously torn apart by the crawling feeling of other humans this close.
"Would it hurt you to give me some space?" Eliot isn't sure he reaches his normal tone, but it should be close enough. "I got shot. Twice. It happens. No need to be all over me for it, you're not band-aids."
"No touching. Absolutely. Got it." Hardison retracts, leaving a few inches of air between them. Parker relocates to the top of the armrest. They're still close, but manageably so. Eliot leans back again and the pain lessens. He even manages a mouthful of Gatorade.
"You look cold," Parker says. Eliot wonders if she consciously phrases it as a statement so he can ignore answering if he wants to. She is, however, right.
Shrugging turns out to be a mistake. "Lost some blood," Eliot answers once he can breathe again. "Hypothermia is a side effect, it'll pass."
"I'll get you a blanket. Maybe we could even build a pillow fortress and…"
"Dammit Parker, no pillow fortress." Eliot cuts her off. She only looks slightly disappointed.
"But a blanket?"
"Sure," Eliot agrees. Parker smiles like she's the cat and he's the canary. If Eliot had known bring him something would make her this happy he'd have asked earlier. Especially since it has the added benefits of both potential warmth and her leaving the room.
In the few seconds Parker is gone Eliot wonders if he should ask them to leave him alone. He could use some time to wrestle himself back in control, remind himself that the job is not done. They'd probably leave the suite, if he asked, and that's why he can't do it. By the looks of it they made it through today. He's not prepared to do anything to jeopardize that at this point.
The blanket turns out to be a duvet from one of the beds that Parker dumps unceremoniously on Eliot's head. Some planning must have gone into the delivery since it never touches his injured shoulder, but he protests none the less as she settles on the floor in front of Hardison.
"Babe, you should work on your bedside manners," Hardison tells her as he unconsciously reaches out and helps Eliot with the comforter.
Hardison's hands are all over. Smoothing out. Tucking in. Eliot lashes out before he can contain himself. "Seriously?" Eliot pushes the hands away. Removes most of his cover in the same motion. Parasites are crawling under his skin. His heart beats harder than necessary. The pain and cold are pushed to the back of his consciousness. He'd prefer them to what's left in their wake.
Hardison makes a face Eliot can't decode and holds his hands up in surrender. The memory of the phone call that started all this drags itself to the top of Eliot's mind. He wonders if the others heard the Picasso comment. What they think about the fact that assassinations used to be his kind of work. He'd been a master of killing in cold blood, and while it can't be news to the others he still fears the reminders will finally turn them away.
Eliot's thoughts are slowing down again, and that, if nothing else, is a good thing.
"I just don't get it, man," Hardison says. His voice holds hurt and confusion, and while it's far from worst case scenario it pokes uncomfortably at something in Eliot's chest. His heart maybe. "You've been leaning on us all afternoon, and then we get here, and I can't even help you with a bloody blanket? What did we do?"
There's no good way to answer that, Eliot thinks. He doesn't want to lie but has no idea what the truth even is. Except for the itchy, tearing discomfort of being touched and how he wished he'd have made them bring him to his room and not the couch.
"Can't be news I hate people fussing over me."
Hardison doesn't look like he's buying it. "But," he starts.
"I told him the job is done," Parker interrupts, bending her back so that her hair spills into Hardison's lap and she is looking at them upside-down. "He thinks he needs to wait until he's at his house but I told him it's done now. That's what changed." Eliot can swear the pain is spreading with her every word, until he feels like every molecule of him is aching.
"We stopped the attack hours ago. We've been done for ages." Hardison's mouth forms the syllables but his mind seems to be elsewhere, spinning in supersonic speed.
"You and I were," Parker says. "Not Eliot."
Eliot's sure he doesn't want to hear this. He just can't come up with a suitable distraction. Pulling the comforter up over himself helps only with the cold. The knowledge that he should have stood his ground, back when this begun, sits heavy in his chest. He should have stood it then and sent them away, and he should have given in later; telling Hardison that yes, he should be scared. He should grab Parker and go.
If that makes him weak or strong is a point of debate, but the fact remains. Eliot didn't get Hardison and Parker out of town. He played by the rules, and they saved a lot of people. That's not something he can regret, and yet... He always knew that once this was over, the decisions would catch up with him. Just like the fear after the pool and Hardison, the regret after the warehouse and Moreau's men. Getting the job done, no matter the price. Paying that price in solitude. To avoid things like this.
"I see," Hardison says. By the sound of his voice he's looking at Eliot, but Eliot's eyes are closed. He needs to disconnect from all this before it tears him to pieces. In his mind he brings out the boat, feeling the waves in his breaths. All the thoughts, insecurities, fear and self-loathing can be dropped into the sea around him. He is not his thoughts nor his emotions. This will pass. Just calm even breaths with the rise and fall of the ocean.
"I'm fine." It sounds like the lie it is, at least in Eliot's own ears. He drops that thought into the water as well. Like the rest of them it sticks around just by the hull, waiting for him to slip and fall in. He's never got to the stage of any meditation exercise where he stops fearing his own mind, no matter the distance he manages to create.
"Bullshit man," Hardison says, and Parker simultaneously tells him "no, you're not".
By some unspoken agreement Parker is the one who continues. "But that's okay," she tells him. "No one is fine all the time. I'm not, Hardison's not, you're not. And, you know, I used to believe it was better to sneak off to be alone too, but I think I was wrong. If you want us to leave though, we will. Whatever helps. Just don't lie okay?"
Parker's words force Eliot's breathing out of rhythm. The waves get uneven and he's sure he'll fall overboard any second. The pain doubles with the loss of control and Eliot is certain he will pass out. Fingers dig into his forearm before he can.
"Eliot," Hardison says, and from the urgency he might be repeating himself.
"What?" Eliot wrenches his arm free. The familiarity of annoyance brings him right back to the couch and Hardison staring at him. Eliot stares right back. His shoulder is screaming at him after the sudden motion but it's nothing he can't handle.
He should take Parker's offer and ask them to leave, but he doesn't. The lines around Hardison's eyes is too soft to stand though, so Eliot leans his head back against the couch and lets his eyes rest on the ceiling as his mind finds its way back to the waves.
"I was really scared," Parker's voice sounds far off. "When I burned that virus, and a shot had gone off, and I didn't know if it would work, or if both of you would be alive even if it did. I don't think I have ever been so scared except when Hardison was in the coffin." She makes a small sound and Eliot glances down to see her wiping at her face and Hardison running his fingers through her hair.
"It's alright babe," Hardison says. "I was scared too, I think we all were."
In the corner of his eye Eliot can see Hardison looking at him. He knows he's supposed to agree, but he's also supposed to not lie. "I wasn't," he says. There's something like disappointment in Hardison's eyes as he meets them, making him go on. "I was trained for things like this, so long ago that it might as well be all I've ever known. Part of that training was to never let anything interfere with completing the mission. Anger, fear, pain, anything like that get the wrong people killed."
"So, you shut it all out until the job is done." Hardison doesn't make it sound like a question so Eliot stays quiet. There's a vase with flowers on a sideboard across the room from him. He didn't even notice it before. Maybe he already said too much. He's not sure he wants Parker and Hardison to know these things.
"Are you scared now?" Parker asks. Eliot thinks of not answering, but he's already neck deep in this river and it might be easier to get out on the other side. Besides, he made her a promise once to answer her questions.
"No. And maybe." Eliot says. It's a coward's way out, a step forward so minimal he should probably turn around now and try to crawl his way up the steep muddy riverbank he slid down to get here. Although, he's not in a river, he's on the boat, and all of this is part of the sea, and the pain is clearly wreaking havoc on his ability to focus. He mustn't forget to breathe. Keep feeling the rise and fall of waves.
The silence is pointed. Eliot can feel their eyes on him and their expectation of a continuation. He can withstand a number of ways to pressure him for information. Has done so on several occasions. Their silence should be nothing compared to that. "No," Eliot still hears himself saying. "I'm not scared of the virus or Udall or what could have gone wrong today. It didn't. It's over. If I'm scared – and I'm not sure that's the word for it – it's of the fact that something like this will most likely happen again. Because of me. And I'll do the same thing then as I did today, only we might not be so lucky."
"What thing, Eliot?" Hardison questions. "What do you mean that you did?" The intenseness of his voice is confirmed as Eliot turns to look at him. As destructive as it is Eliot needs to see their reaction to what he's about to say.
"Whatever it takes." There's an edge to his voice as he speaks, but he is failing to soften it down. "Today it was making you stay and help me even when I should have made you leave. Before, with, with…" He can't even say the word Moreau. If he goes there now, to that pool and that warehouse, he'll have no chance to stay on his boat. That sea around him is filled with far too many of his beasts and it won't matter that he has people trying to save him now. He'll be too far gone.
For once in his life Hardison doesn't ask. "Hey," he says instead. The voice is soothing which makes Eliot hurt even more. Anger would be easier at this point. "If you'd let me leave today, and I'd found out on the news that millions of people were going to die from something I could have stopped? I couldn't have lived with myself. Doing whatever it takes is not necessarily a bad thing."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever." Eliot even dredges up a tiny amount of annoyance, which is a welcome reprieve. He knows he should answer something else, should comment on what Hardison said, but he can't manage any more of this right now.
Somehow, they must read it off of him. Eliot's inability to decide how to feel about that ends up just a small part of the chaos in his mind, but he knows he'll think about it later. For now, he lets them picking a movie and ordering room service simply be the soundtrack he hears but pays no special attention to. Parker order nothing but cereal, but Eliot drops it in the ocean. This will all pass, it's a temporary stage to get through. He is not his thoughts nor his emotions. This will pass. Just calm even breaths with the rise and fall of the ocean.
Eliot resurface halfway through Breakfast Club. While he's heard the movie, he hasn't really kept track of the plot, but it's an easy movie to get into. He wonders if that's why they chose it.
None of it is gone. The pain, the cold, the feelings wrapping up his stomach and heart and lungs in too tight webs. The memories are lingering as well, and from experience Eliot knows they'll be the last thing to go.
It's amazing how the anxiety keeps finding new things he should have forgotten. Things that mattered little at the time and matters less now, but still eat him up when he's like this. The big things never leave him, are always there. Eliot lives with those things every second, he knows how to deal with them, has learnt to adapt to their presence. It seems unfair then, that it's the small things that trips him up at times like this. Words said or unsaid, peoples' reactions around him, the way he can't help but be himself.
None of it is gone, but right now it is bearable. He can let the waves and the boat be at the back of his mind. Dares to let go of the control of his lungs and let them breath on their own. Can pretend, again, for a while at least, to be normal.
Hardison places another bottle of Gatorade and a plate of peanut chicken noodles in front of Eliot, and he realizes he's hungry. The food is no longer warm, but it tastes good and keeps him occupied. Parker goes on about how stupid it is for anyone to fall for a guy who is both mean and disgusting. Hardison points out the unfairness of it always being the nerd who ends up alone. It's better than Eliot can feel he deserves.
"Eliot?" Parker questions, fifteen minutes into some random game show after the movie has finished.
Eliot's thrown back to the memory of her asking the same question, hours earlier, right after Hardison's desperate rush to her and their reunion. There had been a split second before the question then, enough for Eliot to feel a stabbing abandonment more painful than the bleeding holes in his body. That he ever doubted them like that sits heavy in his stomach now. That it could be seen as both resentment and jealousy makes Eliot feel selfish and petty. He doesn't want anything more than he wants them to be happy, and yet he couldn't give them that short moment before thinking of himself. Any good feelings he might had had at the time, any warmth gained from that question and the rush to his side that came after, is now forever tainted. By God does Eliot hate his mind for that.
"What?" He answers the Parker of here and now.
"Is it still bad if I come and sit next to you?" Parker asks it honestly, openly, and the difference from the thief that joined their team all those years ago couldn't be clearer. Eliot has to swallow around the sudden tightness in his throat.
"I don't know," he says. Because he doesn't. When he tries to imagine it it doesn't feel bad, but he didn't think it would last time either. Not like that. He's used to seeking solitude at times like this. He's got no frame of reference for this.
"Is it okay to try?" She says and Eliot answers only with a one-shouldered shrug.
Parker is as graceful as last time when she slips into the empty space between Eliot and the armrest. She moves the comforter out of the way, settling it back over her once she's seated. She's warm, reminding him of when she came to visit during what has later been named the Experimental Job. No itchiness or flight response is triggered. Yet.
"I'm sorry you got shot," Parker says. She sounds rattled, more so than by any other injuries Eliot's had so far.
"Rather me than you," Eliot answers, turning to look at her. He should have deflected the statement, turned his answer into some kind of joke, or done anything to disarm this situation. He doesn't know why he didn't, just knows that his throat is still tight and he wants to speak as little as possible. He also doesn't want Parker to think she's not allowed to show herself vulnerable to him. And really, what kind of joke isn't that?
"It just sucks, man," Hardison says, and Eliot shifts his focus to him. "It sucks to see you in pain like this, to know you took bullets for us, or made the hard decisions, or whatever, and not be able to do anything about it." Eliot is halfway through a vow to himself to simply not let them see when Hardison plows on.
"But don't think that means you get to hide it. I want to know. I also just, you know, want to do whatever helps. So, let us know, alright? It's okay if you want us to leave, or if you need to scream at someone, or if you want me to just shut up, or…" Hardison's eyes are big when Eliot meets them in the slight pause. Big and scared and Eliot made them that way. "Please don't shut us out?" Hardison continues. Eliot almost looks away. "You're important to us, and we care about you the same way you care about us. Okay?"
It's not okay, but Eliot can't say that. He's different from them. They are still innocent.
"Stop talking," Eliot says instead. It might come out a bit harsher than intended, but at least Hardison listens. "You'll start hyperventilating soon if you don't calm down."
"I'm not," Hardison starts, but he falls quiet as Eliot raises an eyebrow at him. "Okay, sorry," he laments.
Hardison's topic echo in the silence between them, bouncing back and forth between Eliot's lack of response and Hardison's will do drive the point home. This, however, is not a subject they'll be discussing. Certainly not today. Eliot demonstratively turns his attention back to the tv.
Lifting the duvet to invite Hardison is less of a conscious choice and more a natural reaction to realizing the heat from Parker is in no way uncomfortable, but slowly pushing the cold away. Eliot is halfway back on the boat as he does it, trying to calm his pulse down and ease up his throat after the last round of conversations.
Physically, he's hurting. Sitting still doesn't make the blood loss prominent, but he knows it's there. It'll be some time before he's any good to the team again, but it's nothing he hasn't lived through at various points in his life.
Mentally, Eliot's been down this road before as well. This won't end here. There's no such thing as a quick fix to all the shit dragged up from his actions today. Even as the worst of the emotions have subsided the memories remain and will keep triggering new attacks. It's a vicious circle that will most likely last for weeks before it settles. Eliot plans on keeping Parker and Hardison in the dark about this, but if he happens to hang out at the Brewpub even when he can't work? Maybe they won't question it.
The memory of Hardison sleeping between Parker and Eliot on the couch the night after he was buried alive comes to Eliot. There will be no sleeping like this for him though. He'll take an hour or two, sitting here, before he'll ask them to help him to bed, explain to them not to get within his reach for as long as he's sleeping. If he falls asleep at all. But that's for later.
Eliot sits between them now and Hardison's skin burns against his arm only in a good way. The weight of Parkers head as she rests it on Eliot's shoulder feels grounding rather than oppressing. It creates both a fuzziness and a hollowness, stark in their contrast to each other. It's terrifying, and it's soothing. It's better and worse than being alone. He wouldn't have this moment any other way.