On The Head Of A Pin

Fandom: Leverage
Pairings: Eliot Spencer/Nathan Ford; Parker/Alec Hardison; Nathan Ford/Sophie Deveraux
Rating: PG-15
Word Count: 11,884
Summary: Alternate Universe – Fusion. He told them he hurt people, they hadn’t believed him. Now they know, he’s the one that pays.
Author’s Note: Written for Leverage Gift Exchange. Sheryden wanted … Eliot/Nate hurt/comfort; a major fan of Eliot-whumping, so I would love to see Eliot emotionally or physically, hurt and gets lots of TLC and reminders of how much people love him. Bonus points if it’s an Eliot/Nate first time fic.

On The Head Of A Pin PDF

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Almost four years. Nathan Ford couldn’t believe five dysfunctional, maladjusted, anti-social individuals had formed a family. What started out as ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ had turned into something that defied description.

Parker, who didn’t like to be touched or restrained in any way shape or form sat with her feet tucked under Eliot’s thigh, leaning against Hardison while she read a magazine about the latest security systems.

Hardison hadn’t stopped smiling since Parker decided she was in the mood for pretzels and they’d stolen the election in San Lorenzo.

Sophie was talking to her agent, skimming through a stack of potential clients. They decided after their little romp in San Lorenzo that while the sex was good, there wasn’t the emotional connection they thought. Their friendship had benefited from the occasional sex, easing the tension between them, and with the team.

Then there was Eliot. Eliot with whom all of them seem to take one step forward and three steps back. Not by word or deed did the retrieval specialist give away his true feelings, but every time Nate managed to get a hand hold in the chinks in Eliot’s emotional armor, something would happen, and Eliot pulled away.

It reminded Nate of an old saying. The things he knew about Eliot would fit on the head of pin and there would still be room for 10,000 angels.

Nate making a deal with Sterling infuriated Eliot. The only reason he hadn’t taken the others and run was Sophie. The grifter had convinced him to stay and protect them while they worked on a way to get Nate out of prison.

When Nate had seen the younger man, Eliot’s temper was simmering just below a boil. He’d taken it out on the guards, and when the mastermind had said, ‘Sloppy.’, the ice in Eliot’s glare had chilled him to the bone. It had only gotten more frigid after he told them about the Italian and Damien Moreau. Sophie had been livid, but Eliot had been so coldly angry his minuscule verbal communication became non-existent except when arguing with Nate over their jobs.

It became obvious to Nate that while the others helped plan jobs while he was in prison, Eliot was the one making sure the plans were executed without a hitch. He and Hardison going off to take down the militia group proved they weren’t above improvising.

Now that Moreau was in prison and Nate didn’t have the threat of prison hanging over his head, he thought he and Eliot would begin to get back on an even keel. The problem was … The hitter pulling away from not only him, but the rest of the team as well. Every day Eliot appeared at the office was a surprise to Nate.

~}}}~~~>

He’d sent Parker and Eliot out to do recon and was headed toward the coffee pot when Sophie stepped in his path.

“What happened?” She asked.

“When?” Nate had learned the hard way it didn’t pay to give up too much information.

Dark eyes impaled him.

“Eliot’s been aloof since we faked my death, but since we found out he worked for Moreau it’s like he’s no longer here.”

“I honestly don’t know.” Nate reached for the pot as he thought back to their confrontation with Moreau in the hangar.

Eliot had sent Nate in search of a first aid kit and to call the paramedics. When he came out of the closest plane with a kit, Eliot and the Italian were having a heated discussion in a language Nate didn’t understand. When they loaded her in the ambulance she’d given Eliot a brief nod.

“Remember our first job after Dubenich?” Nate turned to Sophie after filling his cup.

She looked confused, but nodded.

“Everyone stood around saying how they’d never hurt anyone, just stole stuff …”

She nodded again.

“Eliot told us he got paid to hurt people. He’s never lied about who he is.”

“But …” Nate held up his hand to stop her.

“None of us know who Eliot was … We only know him from these past three years. He knows we’ll put that together with his reputation and that he worked for Moreau and draw certain conclusions.” He looked away from the plasma screens to look Sophie in the eye. “What conclusions would you draw?”

“That I want him on my side, and that he has the capacity to be a VERY bad man.”

“And when Parker and Hardison come to that same conclusion?” Nate prodded.

“He’s planning a retreat. If he pulls back now he won’t be blindsided when he’s rejected.”

Nate nodded his agreement.

“What are you going to do about it?”

“Me!?” Nate’s eyebrows rose toward his hairline.

Sophie rolled her eyes.

“He’s still pissed at me for the whole Sterling/prison thing.”

“He’s mad because you ordered him to leave you behind.” Sophie corrected.

“They would have killed him.” Nate argued as he went back to clicking through screens.

“You don’t know that. None of us knows Eliot’s limits.”

“Then he would have killed them—FBI Agents—Interpol—for us. You said yourself. He’s not that person anymore.”

“I can imagine a lot of things, but I don’t even want to think about what someone like Moreau would have done with someone of Eliot’s abilities.”

They turned when they heard the soft click of the door. All they saw was Parker, her eyes wet, and her expression murderous.

“Parker, what did …? Where’s Eliot?” They asked together.

“He heard you, but said he forgot something at the store.” She glared at Nate and Sophie again before heading toward the workshop. “He better still make me Spaghetti-O’s.” She grumbled.

“What are …? Sophie pulled a box of pasta out of the bag. “Oh.”

Nate poured two fingers of Jameson’s in his coffee.

“We’re off to a rousing start.”

~}}}~~~>

They were surprised when Eliot returned as though nothing had happened, and while he cooked Parker told them about the redundant systems they had found in their target’s building.

By the time they sat down to eat, Hardison had found the second security system. Not only was the building wired, but also the computer network, and if both systems weren’t disarmed, notification went directly to the Head of Security and the owner.

“So his geeks are smarter than you?” Eliot asked as he carried his barely touched plate to the sink.

“What!? No! Not only No, but Hell No!” Hardison reiterated as he finished his food and went back to his workshop grumbling.

“What else do we know about these people?” Nate asked as he started cleaning up.

When Eliot moved to help, Nate waved him off.

“You cooked, I got this.”

With a nod, Eliot grabbed a beer, slipped on his glasses and picked up one of Hardison’s electronic pads and started sifting through information. Nate looked over at Eliot occasionally as he jotted down notes. Then he threw the pad on the counter as he went to make a pot of coffee.

“Problem?” Nate asked.

“Not sure.” Eliot pulled out his phone and started punching numbers.

He spoke briefly, too low and garbled to hear. Shoving the phone in his pocket, Nate thought he heard growling as Eliot stalked out.

Sophie threw a questioning look at Nate, who shook his head in reply.

~}}}~~~>

The first day Eliot didn’t come to the office no one thought anything of it. The second day they called his phone. It went to voicemail. Alec checked the GPS, which said it was at his apartment. So they checked. Everything associated with Eliot’s life in Boston and the Leverage crew was inside a safe disguised as a foot locker.

When Parker opened the safe there was a note along with his phone and ID’s that simply said, ‘Don’t look.’

The third day Nate spent trying to convince Hardison to find Eliot.

Tired of the verbal browbeating, the hacker slammed the lid on his laptop. Unfolding to his full height he held his finger up to Nate, but before any words left his mouth Parker chimed in.

“It could get him dead.”

“What?” The men turned to where Parker sat on the metal steps.

“If Hardison goes poking around it could get Eliot killed.”

Both men deflated.

“Thank you, Parker.” Alec picked up the computer

As he was going out the door Nate reached for a glass and a bottle.

~}}}~~~>

The retrieval specialist was back the fifth day looking none the worse for wear. His tan was a shade darker, but he seemed his usual cranky self.

With Eliot back, the rest of the team’s interest renewed on the mark they’d been researching only to find the man and the company gone.

Hardison began his indignant squawking over the man getting away with his friend’s work when his computer dinged. As he read the hacker seemed confused … Then happy. Four thieves waited expectantly as his fingers flew over the keys.

“He got his money and a job offer. Said thanks for the help and sent us this much …” he turned the pad around, “To show his appreciation. They should all be this easy.” Alec crowed as he set about dividing the fee.

Since Eliot’s past with Moreau came to light, Nate felt the playing field between them was level so when Eliot headed down to the bar, Nate followed. At a back table he asked the question that was foremost on his mind.

“You have anything to do with that?”

“What do I know ‘bout geeks ‘cept they’re annoyin’?” Eliot frowned into his beer.

“You make a phone call, leave, come back, and the problem has mysteriously disappeared … Plus we get a fat payday.” Nate watched Eliot carefully for a twitch, blink, any kind of tell.

He was surprised at Eliot’s chuckle. The rugged face turned angry as he leaned toward the mastermind. Even with the table between them, Nate had to fight the instinct to backup. Eliot’s lip curled in a bitter parody of a smile at the older man’s flinch.

“Don’t presume you know me because I worked for Moreau. You think anyone who would call me would be worried about some geek that got his toys swiped by the playground bully?” Eliot downed the rest of his beer and slammed the glass on the table. Nate didn’t have time to read the expression that was quickly gone. “You don’t know me.”

Shocked, Nate stared as Eliot disappeared out the back.

“He’s right you know?” Nate nearly pulled a neck muscle his head swiveled so fast at the sound of Sophie’s voice.

“Of the lot of us, we know the least about him.” She settled in Eliot’s abandoned seat. “I can count on my fingers what we know … I don’t mean what’s in some file somewhere. Men like Eliot are assets. He has some very specialized skills and knowledge you don’t just pick those up willy nilly.” She sipped her wine thoughtfully. “One doesn’t just walk away from a man like Moreau …”

“Enough!” Nate slapped the table. “For all that Eliot Spencer may be a straw horse, it’s the horse he chose to build a life around and I don’t want to see him lose it.”

“You mean you?” Sophie gave him a coy look.

“Did you like the times we were split up?” Nate redirected.

Sophie shrugged.

“That’s right. You left and sent us Tara. Tara who thinks she’s a five person team except for Eliot. Not sure what the deal was there.” Nate grumbled into his glass.

“Do I detect a note of jealousy?” Sophie teased, but then sobered quickly. “He’s not letting any of us close. He’s afraid of getting more attached, and he’ll find reasons to back away.

“Sophie … Do you think … I mean …” Nate stammered and blushed.

“Oh my.” Brown eyes narrowed. “You didn’t know—I mean not before our little romp through the sheets.” Her voice was bemused.

“Know what?” Nate tried to bury his face in his glass.

“You’ve got your knickers in a proper twist over ‘im now, don’t you?”

A blush crept up from the collar of his shirt.

“Oh Nate. This could be ugly for you, especially with Eliot poised to run.”

“How do I convince him not to?”

“You don’t. Eliot’s here because he wants to be. The second that changes he’ll be gone.”

They both went quiet thinking of the damage they’d caused and the damage that could be inflicted.

Eliot continued to disappear whenever they had downtime. When questioned, he shrugged and said he was paying off a couple old debts.

“Man, you’re rich—Just throw ‘em some cash.” Alec suggested flippantly.

“They’re not those kinds of debts.” Eliot slammed down his cup and left the room.

“What!?” The hacker looked innocently at Nate and Parker.

Parker sat glaring while Nate followed Eliot.

But Eliot hadn’t stopped in the bar. He found the retrieval specialist at the neighborhood dog park watching them play.

“They’re because of us … Moreau?” Nate asked quietly.

When Eliot ignored him, he pressed.

“You didn’t have to … We took care of Moreau. I know you thought you …” He stopped cold when the dark head snapped around, blue/grey eyes flashed diamond hard with fury.

“No, Nate. You did NOT handle Moreau until he was on the run. I did MY JOB. I protected the team. My ‘debts’ were part of that.”

“Eliot …”

“Go back to Sophie, Nate.” He turned back to watching the dogs.

“Sophie’s not the one I want.” He looked at the enforcer’s hands.

Hands that could kill, cripple, or heal—hands that were covered by the ever present half finger gloves. He wondered when the last time was Eliot had touched or been touched without pain and blood involved. He reached out to offer comfort, only to have Eliot move away.

Nate’s chest tightened as he watched Eliot toss his hair back with head high and spine straight, he walked away.

~}}}~~~>

Parker watch enthralled at the scene playing in front of her. It was poetry in motion and light like she had never seen. The only thing missing was sound. There should be sound like in the movies. Then everything stopped. She must have made a disappointed sound because the dark head came around and colorless eyes pinpointed her location.

Parker froze. A heartbeat and the usual disgruntled expression appeared.

“Parker! Get the hell out of the vent.” Eliot growled.

Looking sheepish at being caught, she slid out of the grate and landed lightly in front of Eliot.

“Can you teach me that?” She tried to look innocent and excited at the same time.

Eliot tried to tone down the growl he could feel in his chest. “If I’m doin’ my job you don’t need to learn that.” He walked over and punched a button on a control panel.

The randomly flashing laser lights shutdown. Parker looked bewildered.

Not wanting to explain to the winsome thief that the lasers represented bullets and not motion sensors. He rummaged through his mind for a plausible explanation.

“I hear they’re tryin’ to come up with a randomizer so people like you can’t set up practice grids.” Eliot looked to see if he had Parker’s attention.

“They don’t have all that worked out, but I’ve been workin’ on some stuff startin’ easy then maybe work up to harder stuff like museums.”

“They’re saying random, but they’re still having to use a set number of patterns because truly random couldn’t be handled by a security system unless it’s a Sterenko.” Parker hypothesized.

“Yeah.” Eliot agreed.

She gave Eliot a sly look. “Hardison know what a geek you are?”

“No, and he ain’t gonna either.” He glared at the grinning thief.

Her eyes widened. “We have a secret.” Parker bounced on her toes.

Eliot rolled his eyes. “Somethin’s wrong with you.”

Parker continued to bounce. She pulled Eliot to the panel and pointed. “Teach me.”

Knowing he wouldn’t talk her out of it—they started.

Both were winded by the time they finished without Parker taking a hit. Even knowing it was practice, Eliot’s heart stuttered when the red light found its target.

“That was fun.” Parker’s grin carried a touch of her insanity as she mopped the sweat from her face.

“Come on. You can shower while I cook supper.” Eliot tried to sound begrudging, but Parker skipped through the door while he shut down the room.

Nate watched and occasionally applied gentle pressure … Just enough to let Eliot know he hadn’t given up. Hardison and Parker’s relationship moved at a turtle’s pace, with Parker using Eliot as a buffer.

He’d awakened one night and headed downstairs for a drink. His nightmares these days revolved around Eliot and guns. Not knowing what had happened in the warehouse drove his imagination a bit crazy, but Eliot would in all likelihood disappear if anyone found out so he couldn’t …

He stopped on the bottom step when he saw Eliot standing by the window. His bare feet were silent as he padded across the hardwood floor. When he got within arm’s reach, Eliot spoke.

“I served under Atherton. Might say he helped make me the man I am today … A man who could work for Moreau and still sleep at night.”

It didn’t surprise Nate that Eliot knew he was there. He didn’t move for fear the enigmatic man would stop talking.

“I’m something of an overachiever so I was always first for specialized training.” He paused again. It was as though the words were being extracted one at a time. Nate figured Eliot as the Black Ops type. “You and Sophie aren’t the only people I trusted that fucked over their own team.” Eliot looked at something in his hand before shoving it in his pocket.

“I couldn’t see any other way.” Nate spoke softly, but his tone begged for understanding. “They would have killed you, taken everyone else to jail.” He choked at the thought of Eliot lying on the ship’s deck, blue/grey eyes open, unseeing at the sky.

“You don’t know that. You didn’t trust me when I said I could take ‘em.”

“I trusted you to take care of the lives most important to me. You … You’re that important to me.” Nate insisted.

The ambient light showed Eliot’s head shaking negatively.

“You wouldn’t say that if you knew …”

“I know you. I know everything I need to know. I know what a good, honorable man you are.”

“Nate …”

“Before you reject what I’m saying, just give us—give me a chance. You don’t have to be alone.” Nate watched carefully. Eliot didn’t give away much. He was too controlled. Nate gave him a nudge. “We … I … Don’t care who you were before. We were all someone else before … This … Us. I only care about now.”

Time seemed to stop. Nate fought the urge to shift from foot to foot, remaining still. Finally Eliot turned his face still in the shadow.

“I’ll think on it.” He started to move past Nathan to the door.

Afraid to let him go, Nate took a breath, and took a chance.

“Stay?”

Pale eyes widened then narrowed.

“Not for that?” Nate added quickly. “Yet.” He grinned as Eliot relaxed slightly.

~}}}~~~>

Slowly. Nate sometimes grew frustrated at the pace Eliot set. Sex wasn’t the problem. The retrieval specialist had used sex as a tool enough that sex without emotional connection wasn’t a problem. Nate wanted that emotional connection so he’d told Eliot he wasn’t ready for sex.

Eliot thought his hesitancy came from him never having had sex with a man. In a voice that was part rumbling growl and part purr, he assured Nate he’d make it VERY memorable.

The mastermind had had to step away from the lethal combination of Eliot’s voice and body to gain a modicum of control.

“That’s not it.” Nate assured him then sighed as Eliot’s confusion.

“I don’t want us to simply have sex.” He turned back to finish drying dishes. He’d been at Eliot’s enough to know where things were kept. “I want to make love. I had enough sex I don’t remember.” Nate sighed.

When Nate looked at Eliot his heart fluttered like a trapped bird. The smile that was part mischievous little boy and ‘lock up your sons and daughters’ bad boy had him wanting to agree to anything.

“Let me show you what else I learned in Japan.” Eliot whispered as he pulled Nate in for a kiss that started the meltdown of his brain.

~}}}~~~>

Nate looked at the information on the screens smugly satisfied with what they’d accomplished, but the next one was going to be a little messier.

They were going to need Eliot or Hardison to go in as an escort … Probably Eliot … There was no way they could do without Alec on computers, plus the boy still did the oversell, and he still got embarrassed and tongue tied when strange women hit on him. Eliot, it was then. He was running the plan with Sophie when the door banged open with Hardison’s usual litany coming through ahead of him and Eliot.

Eliot’s expression was indulgent as the hacker continued on about whatever they’d done after Eliot dragged the younger man from behind his computer. Parker appeared shortly after, and everyone settled in to hear what Nate had in mind for their newest mark.

Their client was a maven of the New York City elite that traced many of their family trees to the founding fathers. Several of her friends had been conned out of sizeable amounts of money, but were too embarrassed to go authorities.

“I didn’t think we helped rich people.” Parker stated from her spot between Hardison and Eliot.

“Not all of them are rich. Several have pensions from the family trust while their children use most of the money.”

“Yeah and those dudes been doing the most damage to them. New York’s just the latest. They hit Miami, Nashville, and Louisville. One of ‘em got busted in Nashville, but kept his mouth shut about the others.” Alec added.

Watching the pictures on the screen, no one noticed the smug grin turning up the corners of Eliot’s mouth. He’d been responsible for the crew leaving Tennessee after a call from an old friend had him making an appearance. When he left, he gave her Nate’s number in case the men showed again. Eugenia had called to warn him her friend, Portia Williams would be contacting Nate, and that she’d told her New York City friend all about Eliot. Glad no one was around to see his blush Eliot mentioned he knew the client from a friend of a friend. Feeling that was as much as they needed to know so when they went to Portia’s he wouldn’t be accused of keeping secrets from the team.

With Eliot leaving for New York in a few days, Nate began feeling insecure. He’d been running between snarky and clingy as he wondered how closely he’d been able to bind the hitter to him … To the team. There had been no discussion or promises. The closer it came to time for Eliot to leave the more antsy Nate became.

Eliot cooked for them the evening before he was to leave. They ironed out a few wrinkles, and solidified the rest of the plan.

Everyone else would be in the city a few days after Eliot with Sophie coming in as Katherine Beaumont of the Louisville Beaumonts, an old friend of Portia’s, and a tragically rich widow. Nate, Parker and Hardison would be collecting evidence on their con-men. Eliot warned everyone the men were serious about protecting their con, and he couldn’t be in two places at once if they got caught.

“We’ll wait ‘til you’re done gigoloing to break in.” Parker smirked.

“Not a gigolo, Parker,” Eliot growled.

“We get it, E. No rough stuff without you.” Alec snickered, which earned him a glare.

“I guess we’re done then.” Nate snapped the plasmas off.

Everyone started gathering dishes and heading toward the small kitchen. Nate shooed Eliot away admonishing the younger man to relax with a wink.

Suddenly impatient to have the others gone, Eliot went to the bathroom to get a grip on his emotions. He heard their voices, but when he opened the door their words turned his blood to ice.

“Did Eliot like your honey pot? Is he going to stay?” Parker asked.

“Not so loud, girl. You know Eliot hears everything.” Hardison hissed.

“Oh. Is it a secret? I thought he already had one in the kitchen.”

“Not honey pot, Parker … Honey trap.” Sophie corrected indulgently.

“That doesn’t sound like something Eliot would like.” Parker pouted.

“Don’t be silly.”Sophie assured. “He’ll like it well enough.”

“Can I ask him?”

“No!” The three chorused quietly.

“But …” Parker stopped when she saw Eliot coming from the direction of the bathroom. Grabbing his jacket from the back of the couch, he headed for the door.

Confused, Nate stepped in the enforcer’s path.

“Thought you were staying awhile?”

“Got some things to wrap up before I leave.”

“But …” Nate stopped when Eliot lifted his head and he saw defiance in the retrieval specialist’s expression. He also saw pain reflected in the winter color of Eliot’s eyes and knew he had heard their conversation. “Eliot.” He stepped toward the long haired man his hand out pleading. “It’s not how it sounds.”

A low growl had him stepping back.

The next morning a bleary eyed Nate looked over the loft railing and saw three sets of expectant eyes looking back. With just enough of a nod to answer their questions, but not enough to start the kettle drums in his head, he turned away.

A shower, a cup of coffee, with a splash of the hair of the Irish dog, and he felt almost coherent enough to deal with Parker.

“Was the sex so bad that Eliot left?” She folded her arms in an unconscious imitation of the Eliot, and under any other circumstances it would have been cute.

“We didn’t get that far. He heard us.”

Sophie paled, and Hardison’s skin took on an ashy cast.

“He thinks Parker’s the only one not in on it.” Sophie gasped.

“I keep tellin’ you guys you cannot talk about E when he’s even in the building let alone the office.”

Hardison ran as his fingers few over the keys.

“Dammit!”

“What?” Nate’s head came up so fast he heard the bones pop.

“He’s found or shut off everything I can use to track him.” The hacker complained.

“Before you get in a dither,” Sophie paused until they all looked at her, “Eliot would never leave a job in the middle and he certainly wouldn’t leave an elderly damsel in distress. He’ll show up exactly where he’s supposed to be.”

~}}}~~~>

Bensen Dupre opened the door to the upper East side home of his employer, Portia Williams. He eyed the man standing quietly with a jaundiced eye. The clothes, vehicle and luggage were right, but there was something wild and dangerous about the ruggedly handsome man who waited patiently.

“May I help you, sir?” Bensen wasn’t British, but he sounded as snotty as any English butler ever could.

“Colton Markham to see Miz Portia.”

The voice was rough as gator hide and had a drawl like wild Texas honey.

“She’s expectin’ me.” Pale eyes twinkled with amusement that said he knew what Bensen was thinking.

“Come in, Mr. Markham, Miss Portia told me to expect you.”

“Just Colt, Mr. Markham was my daddy.”

Eliot looked up at the large muscular man with skin the color of night and eyes the color of gold. He knew Bensen Dupre from Hardison’s research and Eugenia, but he was a stranger coming into the Majordomo’s territory—wouldn’t do to piss off someone he needed as an ally.

Eliot ducked his head and bared a bit of throat to show he wasn’t a threat.

“Miz Eugenia sends her regards.” He grinned.

“You the one sent them carpet baggers packin’.” Dupre asked, letting his Georgia origins peek through. Eliot nodded. “You doin’ the same here?”Eliot nodded. “Best get on in here then. Ya can quit all that meek and submissive crap. I know an alpha wolf when I see one. Don’t matter how ya dress ‘im up.” He grinned back at the shorter man.

Portia Williams like her friend, Eugenia Rogers, was opinionated and outspoken. Eliot fell under her spell when they shook hands and she bluntly stated, “Euly was right when she said you were a fine specimen of manhood.”

“Uh … Thank ya, ma’am.” He blushed and stuttered.

“For appearances we’re going to put you in the rooms next to mine. I’ll be the envy of all those ‘ol biddies.” Her laugh was wicked and fun.

Eliot had actually relaxed into Colton Markum, and was sizing up the men they were after and had begun to formulate a plan when Sophie appeared.

Portia and Bensen were confused by the change in ‘Colt’ when ‘Katherine’ came into the living room. Gone was the quiet, intelligent, relaxed young man with a wicked sense of humor, and the protective streak as big as his heart. In his place was a terse guarded lone wolf that snapped and snarled as though cornered.

Eliot excused himself to start preparations for a small dinner Portia was giving in honor of her ‘old’ friend, ‘Katherine’. When the door to the kitchen shut, Sophie looked up from her tea cup to find a set of blue and gold eyes demanding to know what she’d done to upset ‘Colt’.

Taken aback, Sophie took a moment before answering the unspoken question.

“There was a small misunderstanding between ‘Colton’ and myself before he came to New York.”

“Doesn’t seem small to me.” Portia pointed out the obvious.

“Yes, well if I could get him to stand still long enough to listen …” Sophie raised her voice a bit, testing Hardison’s theory about Eliot’s hearing.

“Seems like he’s in one spot now.” Dupre grinned when the rattle of pans came from the kitchen.

“I would say he thinks it’s up to you to go to him.” Portia prodded.

“Yes… Well …” Sophie hesitated not wanting to give up the high ground, but Eliot would chew off an arm before asking anything of anyone.

The two people on the other side of the room were clearly standing with ‘Colton’.

Smoothing her designer dress and patting her hair, Sophie went to beard the lion in his lair. Stopping just inside the door, Sophie took a minute to watch Eliot. The man was a picture of grace and economy of motion.

“Busy here, Miz Katherine, was there something you needed?”

The impatience in the rough baritone was real so Sophie gathered her considerable courage and spoke.

“You didn’t hear what you thought you did.” Came out in a rush.

Eliot looked up from his cutting board and arched an eyebrow at the grifter.

“Nate wasn’t using a honey trap on you. He and I were talking and I mentioned that all his dithering about and poor timing could make it appear to be one. Parker overheard part of the conversation, but not the part where Nate said he hoped you never thought he was manipulating you because you’d disappear.”

Nothing gave Eliot’s thoughts away. Not a twitch, blink or flicker of an eyelash. She remembered how he’d played the doctor at the museum the night they all tried to steal the dagger. The only time she had out conned Eliot was over the two Davids, and that was only because he trusted her.

She’d pulled her thoughts back to her next round of arguments when Eliot surprised her.

“You aren’t afraid of me?”He stated flatly.

“What!” Brown eyes snapped to blue/grey. “Why in the world would you think that?” Her tone was genuinely confused.

His gaze shifted to his hands.

“Because of Moreau.” He paused again.

She studied him for a minute or two before answering. “You said something once … You said you only used violence as an appropriate response. Is that true?” Eliot nodded never looking away. Sophie paused.

Eliot’s survival depended on his ability to assess people and situations instantly. He saw everything and forgot nothing. While they had been watching the dance between him and Nate—Eliot had been watching them all. Hardison had seemed the most affected by Eliot’s revelation. Knowing Eliot wouldn’t retaliate, Hardison took his pound of flesh from the retrieval specialist in cutting comments. On the trip to San Lorenzo, Hardison had Eliot seated alone … Away from the rest of the team.

“None of us are afraid of you, ‘Colton’. Hardison’s coming around.”

The cynical look he threw her spoke volumes.

“You’d better start getting ready. Guests’ll be arrivin’ soon. His tone was flat, his expression bland.

Sophie wanted to stomp her foot in frustration with the taciturn man. She opened her mouth to say something else until she looked into his eyes. He’d been pushed all he was going to allow.

Their second job together he’d bluntly told them he hurt people. For three years he’d hurt people to keep them safe. They had watched time and again as Eliot rose up bloody and battered because it was ‘his’ job, never once giving any thought to what he did before Dubenich. They only thought in terms of after Leverage and Associates.

“You’re right.” She thought about trying one more time until she heard a soft sigh when she turned toward the door. “See you at dinner.”

“Certainly, Miz Katherine.” Eliot drawled then chuckled at her haughty ‘hmph’ as she sailed out the door.

They fell into their roles easily after that—Eliot’s eyes narrowing when Portia’s friend, Lauren Howell arrive with two young men in tow, ‘didn’t want there to be an odd number for dinner’ her excuse.

Eliot recognized one from Nashville and the way Joel Burns eyes widened he recognized Eliot as well. Everything remained civilized until after dinner. Wanting to move things along, Eliot selected one of the Cuban cigars out of the humidor Bensen passed around then stepped out onto the rooftop patio.

Keen ears picked up the rushed footsteps of Burns and his partner.

“Little out of your jurisdiction, aren’t you, Cowboy?” Burns’ tone was snide.

Taking his time to turn around showed Eliot’s contempt for the men.

“Nope. Miz Eugenia sent me to keep her good friend company through the season.” Eliot drawled as he savored the taste of the hand rolled cigar. “Fresh blood?” Pale eyes flickered over the pretty young blond at Burns’ elbow.

“Working his way through college.”

Eliot gave a snort of disbelief. ”That one works for a year or two.” He held out his hand. “Colt Markum.”

Green eyes flicked to Burns. At his nod he grasped the enforcer’s hand.

“Byron Shaw.” He smiled at Eliot’s quirked eyebrow. “My mother taught English Lit.”

“I would have never guessed.” Eliot commented dryly. “We’ll have to get together and exchange notes.” He told the young man as he finally released his hand. “I really need to get back to my hostess.” He drawled.

“I’ll walk back in with you. Maybe you could introduce me to Mrs. Beaumont.” Byron practically gushed.

Damn, the kid made him feel old.

“Where ya from, kid?” Eliot asked cutting into Hardison’s snickering.

“Guy’s using his real name, telling the truth about his mother … Is pretty much on the up and up.”

“How’d he fall in with Burns?” Sophie asked.

“Burns ran an ad on Craigslist. Kid is clueless.” The hacker added.

Alec and Byron finished their recitations at the same time as they came to a stop in front of Portia and Sophie. Eliot raised Portia’s hand and brushed his lips across her knuckles, causing a blush to rise in her cheeks. He turned back to Byron.

“Mrs. Katherine Beaumont may I present Byron Shaw. He seems to think your beauty rivals the stars and the moon … Begged me for an introduction.” Both parties blushed deeply at Eliot’s extravagant introduction. “Byron Shaw … Miz Katherine.” He turned his attention to Portia. “Would you care for a turn around the room, Miz Portia?”

“Colt Markum, you are such a scalawag.” She grinned then wrapped her hand around Eliot bicep as they walked away.

“Damn.” Hardison snickered. “Eliot just used up a whole year’s worth of words.”

A brief growl was heard through the ear buds, but Nate scowled at the hacker. Eliot said so much that no one heard. That day in the park when he’d talked about Moreau’s men, he’d laid himself as open as Nate had ever seen, but apparently he and Parker were the only ones that noticed.

~}}}~~~>

By week’s end Sophie had Byron wrapped around her manicured finger. Eliot could see Burns chomping at the bit. He’d finally caught up with the remaining member of the crew from Nashville and had given the information to Hardison.

“These guys are chumps.” Hardison whined. “I got nothin’. No offshore or onshore accounts, like I said nothin’.”

“Yer throwin’ too big a net, man.” Eliot bit back. They probably convert everything to cash. Ya wanna look for safe deposit boxes, storage units, stuff that you can pay cash with few records…low tech stuff.”

“Yeah—well—that would be right up yer alley.”

“Lucky yer in the van, man.” Eliot growled. “Though how come they all have that same funny smell?”

Hardison sputtered his indignation as Parker howled and Nate snickered.

Hardison combed through all the self-storage units and safe deposit boxes in the city, who knew New York had so many places to stash stuff. A day later, the hacker finally found them.

“They used the kid’s ID.”

“Probably the only one that wouldn’t raise red flags.” Nate offered. “We’ll check it out tonight.”

~}}}~~~>

Eliot enjoyed Bensen’s excellent breakfast. Sophie and Portia were going shopping and taking Eliot and Byron along as pack mules.

“Really?” Sophie made a moue of distaste at Eliot.

“Pack mule, Sherpa, porter, footman … Whatever you wanna call it it comes down to me totin’ your stuff all over New York.” He enjoyed his Blue Mountain coffee as the women finished their breakfast.

Insistent knocking had the grifter jerking open her bedroom door. “What so important it couldn’t wait a few more minutes?” Sophie’s tone was annoyed when she opened her door.

“I didn’t think you wanted to talk about this in front of Bensen and Portia.” Eliot pushed past.

“Eliot!” She complained.

“As fine as it is, it ain’t nothin’ I haven’t seen, Sophie.”

Sophie blushed as he leaned against the bed post.

“Time to step up the game.” Sophie gave him a confused look. “Pull out the tragically bereaved mother that sees how much Byron looks like her dead son, how since you have no heirs you’re goin’ help him through college, maybe change yer will.”

“Are you daft?”Sophie asked.

Eliot rolled his eyes. “We need to git these guys movin’. I guarantee ten minutes after you ‘change’ yer will, one of ‘em will be tryin’ to kill ya.”

“You don’t have to sound so happy about it.” Sophie snarked.

“Know how much ya love them death scenes.” Eliot smirked.

“You think two weeks has been enough time for something that drastic?” Sophie asked.

“That boy would crawl on his belly over hot coals to get a look at your financial statements.”

“He really is an innocent…”

“He spends his time caterin’ to old people for money and expensive gifts ‘cause he’s pretty. He’s not innocent.”

“You should listen, Sophie. Eliot knows all about sellin’ yourself to the highest bidder.” Hardison snapped.

Silence reigned over the coms.

“Yes … Well … I think you’re right. I’m sure they’ll be something during our shopping trip that will trigger a good dose of melancholia.” Sophie kept her tone light while closely watching the shuttered look on Eliot’s face.

Hardison looked up at the two people currently glaring at him. Parker’s lips pursed and her eyes narrowed as she snatched back the orange soda she’d set down and stomped out of the suite. Nate watched him over the rim of his glass.

“What!? It’s the truth.”

“Then what motivates him when it’s us he’s protecting?” Nate asked.

“He was gonna let me drown?”

“He agreed to kill a man so you didn’t.”

Eliot had heard enough. Pulling the bud out of his ear he turned to leave.

“Eliot!?” Sophie called after him.

Hardison snapped his mouth shut on his next comment. Nate’s glare sent a fissure of anxiety down his spine.

“Looks like you were wrong this time, Sophie. Nice try though.” Eliot started for the door again.

“Eliot?” She asked again looking at the hand holding his com.

“I’ll be downstairs. Don’t be too long.”

Sophie didn’t like this Eliot. He was too calm. There was no flash of temper in his eyes, no grumble or growl, just … Resignation. He would leave after this job.

“Sophie?” Nate’s worried voice interrupted her thoughts.

“I had made headway.” She said pointedly. “But that’s torn it. He … It may be beyond repair.”

Hardison kept his eyes on his keyboard. They could get another hitter. Maybe that Israeli woman—she was scary, but hot.

“Not like Eliot.” Parker smacked him on the back of the head.

Hardison blinked. He didn’t think he’d said that out loud.

“Sophie?” Nate’s worried voice interrupted her thoughts.

“He’s had enough of the hair shirt.”

“Eliot doesn’t have any hair shirts.” Parker frowned.

Hardison watched Nate pale then turn to replenish his glass.

“What … What’s she mean?”

“Nothing that will concern you.” Nate sounded tired as he went to look out the window.

The hacker noticed Parker concentrating on something.

“Parker, whatcha got?”

“Just some notes.” She said flatly.

She found the note with an address and time pinned to her favorite harness and she was still trying to figure out how Eliot got it there, but she would meet him.

Sophie was on her game when shopping for cuff links for Byron’s tux. She’d seen a set like ones she’d bought for her son’s 21st birthday. Her mother’s grief scene had put a spectacular end to the shopping trip as Portia tried to console her friend, and that’s when Eliot saw it.

Then it was gone as quick as it had appeared. It was the barest of slips, and most people would never have noticed, but it Eliot’s job to notice—that glint—gleam—flash that told him Shaw had taken the bait, but the boy’s expression had been too smug for the innocent they thought him to be. He thought it was a good thing he and Parker were checking out the address Hardison had found.

~}}}~~~>

They were scheduled to attend the theater but ‘Katherine’ begged off saying she was just too distressed to attend. Always dutiful, Byron swore he would stay by her side so she needn’t be alone.

Everyone retired to their respective suites giving Eliot a chance to push his bike away from the house before heading to theater where he stashed it out of sight. He took care of the cameras around the outside of the building so once the house lights went down at the start of the play he’d slip out, meet Parker and hopefully be back before Intermission.

~}}}~~~>

Intermission found him standing next to Portia sipping overpriced swill that they passed off as beer. The address had been a decoy. The minute Parker had opened the door they knew. The smell of abandonment and thin layer of dust over everything had them taking pictures than backing out the way they came being sure to obscure their footprints in the dust settled on the floor.

He’d torn a strip of Hardison for not digging deep enough on Shaw—letting some second class hacker pull one over on him.

“I think this Shaw cat is your brains. Burns is just the front man.” Eliot growled as he straightened his tux, and finger combed his hair before he stepped back into Portia’s box.

Chastised and humiliated Hardison went after the three men with an attitude he usually reserved for his nemesis, Chaos. It was close to 2am by the time he found them, a safe deposit box and storage unit under the name Samuel Dashiell.

Knowing Eliot’s erratic sleep habits, Hardison took a chance the enforcer was still awake.

“Hey E, ya on the line, man?” He kept his voice low in deference to Nate and Parker.

“Yeah.”

“I’m sending a file to your phone.” He kept talking as his fingers never stopped. “Turns out Mr. Innocent—ain’t. He’s Brian Sharp, doctoral student in math at CalSci … Supposed to be doin’ field work on his thesis. His advisor is some math genius named Epps that consults for all the alphabet agencies usin’ math to catch the bad guys.”

“So what this kid’s trying ta prove—ya can use math to be a bad guy?” Eliot cracked.

Sitting on the rooftop patio, he sipped a mug of one of the wonderful teas in Bensen’s pantry. He smirked as he heard Parker skittering across the slate roof tiles.

The hacker was speechless. Eliot always did this to him. Somehow the man’s brain sifted, sorted and came to a conclusion faster than his algorithms.

“How—you—damn—yeah.” He finally gave up.

“So this guy works out, does some kind of martial arts ‘cause he’s in pretty good shape—lean—not too bulky—runs, maybe swims, uses swords, sticks—no guns, thinks he’s too smart for anyone to trip him up.”

“Uh…yeah…guess you really didn’t need the file.” Alec’s voice got quiet.

“Validation of the theory, man.” Eliot answered just as quiet.

“How’d ya know ‘bout the swords?”

“Hands. The calluses are very distinct and in the wrong places for guns.” Hardison heard shuffling. “Guess I’ll call it a night.”

“Eliot?” Alec called softly hoping the older man wouldn’t shut him off and out.

“Yeah.”

“Look man, about the things I said …” The hacker drew a breath, but before he could say anymore, Eliot cut him off.

“You got it right and wrong.” He said quietly. “I used to sell my services to the highest bidder, but there ain’t no hitters out there like me. That’s why it’s Retrieval Specialist. Y’all seem to forget that part.”

“You got it, El.” Hardison chuckled.

~}}}~~~>

A charity cocktail party the next evening had Eliot looking for Burns and the seldom seen Tony Garner. Hardison had finally found the accounts for the three men. He even found the accounts of the guy that got arrested in Nashville. He soon had freezes on the accounts hoping to force Sharp’s hand. Watching from his vantage point, Eliot saw Sophie and Sharp arrive fashionably late with the other two men and their dates close behind.

Staying at Portia’s side through the evening, Eliot watched several heated conversations between the men. He felt the air shift as Sophie sidled up to his elbow.

“Trouble in paradise?”

“They seem to think your beau did something to freeze their accounts.”

“That’s the problem with today’s generation …” Sophie quipped. “No honor among thieves.”

An arched eyebrow was Eliot’s response as Sophie moved toward her ‘date’, her face a mask of concern.

“Byron, darling, is something wrong?” Oozed over the coms.

“What? Oh no.” A look of calm slipped over his expression. “An associate got some distressing news. We were discussing a few solutions.”

“Anything I can do to help?” Her tone turned caring and soothing.

Giving her a warm smile he kissed her knuckles. “You’re very sweet, Katherine, but it’s just a paperwork snafu … Nothing that can’t be cleared up in the morning.” He tucked her hand in the crook of his arm. “Let’s enjoy the party. I’ll be I’m envy of every man here and some of the women, too.” He dropped his voice trying to sound naughty.

Eliot rolled his eyes as the rest of the team made catty remarks

“You’re a terrible man.” Sophie chided as she preened over his words.

After everyone had retired for the night, Eliot walked the house making sure everything was secure when he heard Hardison hiss his name.

“Eliot.”

“What?”

“Sharp just sent a text to Burns and Garner to meet him at the warehouse at ten o’clock in the morning for a split.”

“Sounds like tyin’ up loose ends.” Eliot speculated.

“He emptied the accounts of the guy that got caught in Nashville—plus I found a police report says he was killed in jail.” Hardison was starting to sound spooked.

“He doesn’t want anything comin’ back to bite him in the ass when it’s time to shop his services to the highest bidder.” Eliot paused. “Ya tell Nate?”

“Not yet. Him and Parker are makin’ a run on the safe deposit boxes first thing.”

“I’ll handle Sharp. You can fill Nate in when they get back. Ya got any kinda eyes and ears in the warehouse?”

“There wasn’t anything active before, but I’ll check.”

“Good. Let me know.”

As he finished his walkthrough, he mentally pulled up the file he’d read on the three men, and started putting together some ideas of what he could be facing. Best case scenario the men split the money and blow town. Worst case there’s some kinda confrontation where one or more are injured or killed and you get the cops involved. Sharp wouldn’t want that—hiding bodies should be simple enough for a genius.

By the time he stretched out on his bed, Eliot figured Sharp would kill Burns and Garner and take all the money then stage it to look like a drug deal gone bad. As he forced his mind into silence he hoped Hardison didn’t find any surveillance in the warehouse. Like with Moreau’s men he really did not want an audience if things got ugly.

~}}}~~~>

To stave off explanations, Eliot tried to leave before the rest of the house was awake. Slipping into the kitchen he saw coffee and an omelet Bensen had just turned onto the plate. He started to back out of the room until…

“Don’t tell me you’re walkin’ away from one of my omelets.” The deep voice came to him though Bensen’s attention didn’t stray from his task.

Eliot signed, but didn’t argue. “I had hoped.” He said as he took the plate from the majordomo.

Bensen studied him a moment before he settled across from the smaller man with his own breakfast.

“This endin’ today?” The older man asked.

Eliot gave a curt nod as he savored his breakfast.

“Miz Portia goin’ be missin’ your fine self when you leave.”

“She’s a very special lady.”Eliot agreed. “You should take her to visit Miz Eugenia ‘til this all quiets down.” He suggested. He stood and carried his plate to the sink. “If you don’t see me again, just send my bag with Sophie … Miz Katherine.” Eliot didn’t look back as he left through the kitchen door.

~}}}~~~>

He pulled out his ear bud and put his phone on silent before picking the lock on a side door, and sliding into the shadows. He opened his senses to the building. He could smell blood, but he only heard one person moving around. It was probably Sharp since the steps were calm and unhurried. Using the lessons he learned many years ago when Atherton sent him to The Fraternity, he moved around the warehouse until he had a picture of the layout.

Burns and Garner lay in an unused portion of the warehouse, blood pooling under their bodies. He started toward an area with computers and white boards. He watched as Sharp moved back and forth between the two making changes on the boards then typing on the computer. On silent feet Eliot continued to move around the room until he was behind the blond man.

The scuff of shoes on concrete had Eliot and Sharp’s heads snapping toward the sound. Eliot wanted to curse long and loud when he recognized Hardison’s step. Brian grabbed a kodachi from next to the computer and headed toward the sound. Eliot took an extra moment to plug one of the hacker’s wireless whatnots into the computer before shadowing the blond.

The scurry of a rat in the direction of the bodies had Sharp changing directions. Eliot caught Hardison’s eye, his glare sending the hacker scurrying quietly out the door, and back to the van. Knowing he needed to give Hardison time to hack through any passwords and firewalls Sharp had in place, Eliot moved back toward the computers and lightly kicked a metal trash can.

Brian instantly changed directions, the Japanese knife gripped tightly in his right hand.

“Ya really should think before ya bring a knife to a gun fight?” Eliot drawled from the shadows.

“Markham?! What are you doing here?!” Brian practically screeched. He paused. “You have a gun?”

“Don’t like ‘em myself, but you should think about it before you go chargin’ in with that little pig sticker.” He nodded toward the kodachi. “As to why I’m here, well I like to look out for the interests of my friends, and I don’t like what I been seein’ these past few weeks.”

Out in the van, screens popped in and out as Hardison worked to get into Sharp’s computer. His logical mind knew why Eliot had turned off his electronics. Sharp was a genius and a geek. Eliot would take into consideration the man would have safeguards in place against them. The thing he couldn’t guard against was Eliot getting one of his little helpers plugged into his system. He just had to do that—then get around—oh no you don’t—can’t keep me out—and he was into the system, and trying to use the computers speakers to hear what was going on. If something happened to Eliot, Hardison was sure there wasn’t anywhere he could hide from the wrath of Nathan Ford. Eliot might not believe anyone but Parker cared about him, but Alec Hardison would have sworn on his Nana’s life that Nate was in love with the retrieval specialist. The problem was convincing Eliot.

Just when he was about to pull his hair in frustration, he heard voices and hit the ‘record’ button.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Markham.”

“I’m talkin’ about all the people you’ve pilfered money from since you’ve been here. A bank account number here, credit card there. Nothin’ nobody’d miss for the next thirty to sixty days, and by then you’ll be long gone.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Sharp sniffed disdainfully. “Besides the rich and beautiful Katherine Beaumont has assured me the funds for the remainder of my doctoral degree are secure.”

Eliot’s chuckle was low and dirty. Hardison ground his teeth as he listened to the hitter provoking Sharp. He wanted to yell back through the speakers for Eliot to just punch him and get out of there. His eyes flew to the screen where the information from the computers was copying and cursed slow connections.

“Katherine Beaumont is THE premier grifter on the east coast. Her money comes from all the poor slobs she’s conned over the years, and she don’t give her money up for nothin’. She was just leadin’ you ‘round by your dick until some old, rich dude caught her eye.” Eliot’s grin was all teeth.

Hardison nearly cracked his head on the roof of the van when Nate’s voice startled him.

“Parker and I are done here. We got everything we needed. How are Sophie and Eliot?”

“Sophie is fine, but I’m a little concerned about Eliot. He left the house this morning before anyone was up. Bensen said he talked as though he wasn’t coming back.” Sophie’s voice floated into the conversation.

Damn, damn, damn,

“Hardison?”

“Eliot’s doin’ what he does best.”

The clash of metal on metal came out of the speakers.

“What’s that noise?” Nate demanded. “Parker can you figure out where …” The mastermind’s voice trailed off.

“I’m at the warehouse. Eliot’s inside pissin’ off Sharp to give me time to download his hard drives.”

By the time he finished car doors were slamming and tires screeching. Hardison prayed it was all over but the shouting by the time they all got here.

Fifteen minutes later, the sounds of fighting still came from the speakers. Nate and Parker had swung by and picked up Sophie, but had gotten caught up in the aftermath of an accident.

The download stopped at the same time silence came through the speakers. Not wanting to face Eliot’s wrath if he went back in the warehouse alone, Hardison waited.

He was getting fidgety when Eliot didn’t come out of the warehouse. Just as he was about to risk the hitter’s anger, Nate came squealing around the corner. Before the car slid to a stop, Parker was running for the warehouse. She stopped and pulled her hand back from the door as they noticed smoke coming from the roof vents.

Parker started circling the building, Nate realizing what she was doing chased after her. Hardison looked at Sophie.

“Hope you brought your hikin’ shoes.”

Hardison called the fire department then he and Sophie moved the vehicles around the block. They searched the outside of the building, and further into the maze of empty warehouses. At a distressed sound from Parker they all headed to her location. A trail of blood led from the warehouse and deeper into the maze, but then disappeared. Nate made a frustrated noise, glad the blood had stopped, but mad because it would make Eliot that much harder to find.

“Nate, we need to leave. There’s too many people for us to stay.” Sophie urged.

“Eliot …”

“Eliot will find us. We need to go or all Eliot’s work will be for naught if they catch us here.”

Parker pulled him toward the vehicles. He tried to snatch his arm away, but damn the girl was strong.

“Hang off buildings by my fingertips.” She reminded him as she yanked harder.

Hardison booked their flight back to Boston as they drove back to Portia’s to pick up Sophie and Eliot’s luggage. The expression on Portia and Bensen’s faces told the thieves they hadn’t seen Eliot. Bensen had had Eliot’s rental picked up and his luggage sat next to Sophie’s.

Nate handed Portia a list of names and amounts.

“This is the information found on Brian Sharp aka Byron Shaw’s computers. He killed his compatriots so there wouldn’t be anybody left behind that could come back later to blackmail him.”

“Blackmail him for what? He wasn’t anybody that I’d ever heard of.” Portia asked confused.

“He hoped to follow in the footsteps of his mentor and use his mathematical prowess as a consultant.”

“I suppose being a gigolo and embezzler would not look good on a background check.” Bensen sneered.

“Where are young Mr. Sharp and his cohorts?” Portia asked.

“He killed Burns and Garner. We’re not sure about Sharps. There was a fire in the warehouse where he had his computers, so we’re not certain. We’ve returned the money taken from your friends.” Sophie took over from a distracted Nate.

“There was a report on the news about a warehouse fire, but it’s still in progress.”

“YES!” Parker stared at the television. Fire always excited her. “Good one, Eliot.” She whispered.

Before they had to explain, the men grabbed the luggage and herded Parker to the car while Sophie made their goodbyes.

Portia reached out and placed her hand on Sophie’s arm.

“Please give Eliot our thanks, and that he’s welcome here anytime.” She insisted.

“When he returns.” Sophie promised as she turned away.

~}}}~~~>

Deep in Chinatown an ancient apothecary scolded the young man whose skin he was knitting back together.

“You are much out of practice, if you allowed yourself to be marked in such a way, ér zi (son).”He mumbled.

“I was unarmed, wài gōng (grandfather).” Eliot grunted back as the needle pierced the thin skin of his side.

“Your friends will look over you until you heal?”

“I’ll be fine, wài gōng (grandfather).” Eliot huffed out as the Ancient started on the next gash.

“You will be feverish and cranky.”

Eliot rolled his eyes. “They won’t see any difference.”

“Crankier then.” He gave the needle a little extra jab.

A surprised yelp had Eliot glaring at the old man who continued unconcerned.

“I thought your leader had come to care for you?”

“He tells us what is convenient for him.”Eliot sighed as his torso was swabbed with disinfectant and wrapped.

The apothecary remained silent as he continued to bind the wounds of the youngster who had stepped in the middle of his Triad troubles when they were both younger and less battle weary. He had thought this Nathan Ford could unlock the iron box in which Eliot had placed his heart, but something had damaged the trust between them.

“He holds your secrets?” Eliot straightened when he pulled the binding tighter to support the bruised ribs.

“Yes.”

“He keeps them silent?”

“For now.”

Confused the old man came around to face the retrieval specialist.

“There is a time limit on these things?”

“It’s leverage.”

“Why would he need such a lever if he holds your heart?”

“To keep me in place until he no longer needs to.” Eliot looked away, but looked up in surprise when his friend began to laugh.

“Oh ér zi (son), that is so very funny. No one ever kept Eliot Spencer where he did not want to be. He has bruised your heart and you stay out of stubbornness to prove that it does not matter.”

Eliot slid off the stool to hide the fact that he was blushing at the truth of his old friend’s words. He bowed as deeply as the bandage around his torso would allow.

“Thank you, wài gōng (grandfather) for your help.”He pulled a clean wife beater and button down shirt out of his pack.

Finally dressed, he carefully shouldered his bag, and laid a red envelope on the stool as he turned for the back door.

“Stubborn child.” The elder growled. “Eliot Spencer, you turn yourself back around.” Sheepishly the younger man turned back. He handed the hitter a leather pouch. “These will help with the toxins that were on the knife. You should return to your friends until the poison leaves your system …“

“I will be fine.” He hung the pouch around his neck, tucking it carefully under his shirt and jacket, and headed out the door.

~}}}~~~>

As he walked he felt the poison flowing through his system. He stopped at a street vendor for a cup of hot water adding a pinch of the herbs. As he walked, his thoughts chased through his head like mustangs racing across the plains.

In the past three years he had been wary of, awed by, and hated Nathan Ford, and until the job that led to Nate going to prison, he’d trusted him. He’d stayed because Nate had made it clear Eliot was to protect ‘his’ family, and faithful hound that he was—he’d done it. He’d tried to leave, but Sophie, Parker and Hardison seemed to have a sixth sense about when he was thinking of leaving. Sophie would have Alec find a client, Parker would climb in his lap with soulful eyes and request bizarre food, and he stayed.

Damien Moreau had changed everything—except Parker.

The longer he walked the worse he felt. His eidetic memory pulled up all the facts, symptoms and antidotes for the poison Brian Sharp had used on his kodachi. The herbs he got from the apothecary would keep the poison from killing him, but it still had to flush out of his system. His brain reminded him that disjointed thoughts were part of the poison so he didn’t dwell on them—merely acknowledged they were lurking behind his control. His feet stopped, and when he looked up there was a door. An all night diner where he ordered scrambled eggs and dry toast to rest easy on his stomach, and he was able to drink another cup of Grandfather’s herbs.

Time ceased to matter as he continued his walk. Movement would flush the poison faster, making him sick faster. *Sumbitch fancied himself a fuckin’ ninja.* He was long out of the city, leaving suburbia in the dust when his body started to betray him. Sweat burnt his cuts like acid, his ribs thumping in time with his head.

He forced his mind to clear enough to get his bearings. He was still moving north on what appeared to be the two lane road running parallel to Interstate 95. The lights of a small motel blazed in the dark.

He felt better after a shower and new bandages. Another pinch of herbs in water and then blessed sleep.

The next day was like a death march where sheer determination and stubbornness set one foot ahead of the other. Sweats and chills were a constant companion and the only thing that stayed on his stomach was the herbal tea. He needed to hold out two more days … Two more days and the poison should be clear his system.

He’d stopped and had a bowl of soup along with the herbal tea that seemed to be staying down. He’d asked about motels in the area, but the waitress had told him the next one was fifteen miles north. Not sure he had another fifteen miles in him, he bought several bottles of water and a box of crackers.

Thoughts still disjointed—the images of his time with Nate, and with the team rolled through his mind like an antique stereoscope, the images jerky and faded. He stopped at a roadside park and sat at the picnic table with his aching head on his backpack and arms.

Voice rusty from disuse he began talking just to remember what it sounded like. He talked until he lost his battle with consciousness.

~}}}~~~>

Nate snatched his phone out of his pocket on the first ring. It had been four days since Eliot disappeared, and he was more than a little frantic. He didn’t think the retrieval specialist would leave without telling them so they were all having visions of Eliot lying in an alley slowly bleeding to death.

“Eliot!” He nearly shouted.

“I’m afraid not, Mr. Ford, but I am an old friend of his.”

“Who is this!? Where’s Eliot!?”

His raised voice and Eliot’s name brought the other three rushing into the room. Hardison snatched up a keyboard and began tracing the call.

“You can tell your Hardison to not bother tracing the call. Eliot got me a special phone that cannot be traced.” The aged voice chuckled.

“What! Naw! That’s just not right  … How’d Eliot get  … Never mind.” He put Nate’s phone on speaker.

“Eliot said you would not like that.” Before he could go on Nate interrupted again.

“Who are you?”

“Eliot calls me Grandfather, and I think of him as one of my own.” He paused knowing he had their attention.

“You fixed him?” Parker asked.

“As best I could. He would not stay. Like a wounded wolf he went to ground until he is once again strong. He would not have you see him weak.”

“But we’re his family.” Parker nearly whined.

“Awww. Eliot’s mèi mei (sister), Parker. His idea of his place is more guard dog than family.”

“I knew there was something wrong with him.” She muttered as she grabbed another laptop and started pulling up maps. “How long ago?” She asked.

Three sets of eyes turned to the thief.

“72 hours, on foot, and poisoned.”

“Poisoned!” Sophie’s voice sounded shrill. “You let him leave.”

“No one makes Eliot stay where he doesn’t wish to be. He’s been taking the antidote, but he’s is probably very ill.”

“If it helps, I saw him put something in his ear, but I cannot say whether it was turned on or off.”

Hardison snatched the keyboard again. “Maybe I can get it to turn on.”

“I know where he is!” Parker crowed. “Almost, but we can get close fast then start looking slow.” She blushed.

“That’d be good ‘cause he’s obviously out of range of anything I can do right now.” Hardison frowned.

“Get your gear together. We’ll leave as soon as everyone’s ready. Sophie you might want more country mouse for this trip.” Nate advised looking at her skirt and heels.

They heard a chuckle in the background. “It seems Eliot has more of a family than he thought. This is a good thing, I think. Perhaps we will meet one day.”

“I look forward to the day he trusts us enough to introduce us.” Nate answered. “Thank you for calling me.”

The line went dead.

The big sedan pulled into the rest area where a man sized shadow sat at the table. The shadow never moved as four people got out of the car. He hoped they tended their business and moved on. The poison had debilitated him to the point where he would still be sitting at this table tomorrow when things started working properly again—if he was still alive.

Eliot thought he was past the hallucination stage, but apparently the ghosts in his head decided to torture him some more. He’d been rambling to the voices, especially Nate. It was a good thing they were imaginary because he was sure he gotten downright sentimental a couple times, but by then the only voice he heard was Nate’s. Hell, he thought he even told the alcoholic mastermind he loved him. Who in their right mind loves an alcoholic? He’d watched that play out too many times to count. But then again he wasn’t in his right mind either. Maybe the four shadows coming toward him were mere figments of his imagination, when the wind shifted carrying their unique and well known scents.

They sat at the table, Nate and Parker pressed against his stitched and sore body. With a grunt he laid his head back on his arms.

“Why are you here?”

“We’re rescuing you.” Parker announced with a poke to his arm.

“I don’t NEED rescuing, Parker.” He said between gritted teeth.

“Then we’re stealing you.” Nate said like they had this conversation every day. “I hired these thieves to steal me a retrieval specialist.”

“Dime a dozen.” Eliot growled as he thought about moving until Parker wrapped herself around his arm.

“Hitters maybe,” Hardison said, “but not retrieval specialists.”

“Besides we only steal the very best.” Sophie pulled out her Countess accent.

“Great.” Nate thumped his hands on the table and stood. “Time to head for home.”

Ever stubborn Eliot shook off their helping hands. “I got it.” He growled.

Parker skipped ahead to the car. “I’ll drive.”

“NO!” Four voices carried through the night.

They got Eliot settled in the front seat, and with a soft look on his face, Nate faced his family.

“Looks like we stole ourselves a retrieval specialist.”

They were all grinning as they settled for the trip home.

~ Fini ~

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