"Hardison?" Nate's voice was quiet. Depressed. Like he knew he was giving in. "I need his emergency contacts."

"Yeah," Alec turned back to the laptop, it was already glowing on his screen. But he couldn't make himself hand it over. Nate looked wrecked, hell, they all were breathing shallow, waiting on the news, but.

"I'll do it," he decided, taking a breath. It was already twice as real as it had been, even in the waiting room. Nate's guilt was shaded with ashamed relief, and it was that, more than anything, that was pushing Alec to just get this over with.


Okay, everyone, seriously. If you've got anyone you want notified in the event of something bad happening to you, go ahead and enter it. I've already set the system to automatically ping your emails and phones the moment they're accessed, so you'll know if-"

"Yeah," Eliot snorted. "Like you don't already have a workaround hack already built in."

"The alternative," Nate pointed out, "is that I tell Hardison to go ahead and track down your families. And you all know that if he's taking the time to look, he's likely to find a hell of a lot more than just a phone number."

Parker rolled her eyes and held her hand out for the laptop. Typing in a phone number- Montana area code, if Alec wasn't mistaken, not that he was looking- and nothing more, she handed it back without entering a name.

"Just hit save, then clear when you're done."

"It's a voicemail," she said. "It'll get checked."

He saved it, cleared the fields, and passed the laptop to Sophie. "Same thing, as much detail as you're comfortable with. If there's a name you should use." Sophie smirked, before typing in her information, clearing it, and handed it over to Nate.

Nate didn't bother hiding the fact that he was entering in Maggie's number, and Alec had already entered Nana's information- name, address, phone number, the number of her friend Lanelle across the street- so he passed the laptop to Eliot, who eyed it as if planning its trajectory out the window.

But a moment later, he began to hit at the keys.


That had been three years ago, before they'd started circling each other, well before they'd crashed together, fueled by alcohol and their first flawless job in months and the tension finally becoming too much to ignore any longer.

Eliot had even mentioned, circumspectly, the idea of introducing Alec to the family once Eliot had figured out how or if he was going to tell them who Alec was. What he meant.

Alec hadn't pressed- Nana had guessed within five seconds of meeting Eliot, but she was Nana, the woman had powers- but he got it. Not everyone had a Nana.

Eliot had a sister in Ohio and parents in Oklahoma, and when he dialed their number, the twang that answered was so familiar that Alec forgot who he was calling, forgot why.

"Hi, I'm looking for a Martin Spencer."

"You've got him."

"Hi. My name is Alec Hardison, I'm a friend-slash-co-worker of Eliot's, and-" he swallowed, not knowing where to go, he should've thought it out, should've written it out, but Mr. Spencer was already there.

"What's happened? Is he okay?"

"That's the thing, sir. We don't know yet. He was hit by a car about two hours ago, and he's in the hospital."

"Which one?"

"Massachusetts General," Alec sighed, a sick sort of relief washing over him as he realized that the worst of it was out. "We're in the waiting room, they haven't come up with a final diagnosis, but his back-" Alec didn't know how to finish, and surprisingly, Mr. Spencer didn't ask him to.

"We're on our way. Can I reach you on this number?"

"It's a cell, yeah."

"We'll let you know when we're close."


Waiting sucked.

"There's still too much swelling for us to make an accurate prognosis."

He fired off a text to Nate. Sophie had been the most clear-headed one, when they'd all arrived at the hospital. Regardless of the fact that she was now claiming shock, she'd been the one to step up.

Nate had been doing fine, considering what they were up against, but when Parker arrived in the waiting room, red-eyed and pale-faced, he'd nearly lost it. He'd started arguing with the nurses, the intake staff, anyone who'd had the misfortune of being there and not having an answer for him.

"We still need to finish the job," Sophie had decided, channeling just enough ice queen to get her point across. "We're almost there, all we need is to deposit the device in the evidence lockup. Parker, Nate? I want you two working on that. Hardison and I will be here, we'll contact you the moment there's word."

Nate was already guiltily watching the door, but Parker looked like she was about to argue, maybe even start crying again.

"It'll only take an hour," Sophie said, leaning in closer to Parker than she normally would've. "And if we're all very lucky, Eliot will be able to have visitors very soon. I know it's not what any of us want to hear right now, but it'll help him to know that we got the job done, and that we're all okay, all right?"

Alec hadn't actually thought it would work, but it was enough to get the two of them out the door, back on the road, and off towards the police department.

And he saw the reasoning for it all, but when Parker glanced back at them as she followed Nate back towards the parking ramp, he kind of hated Sophie, just then.


The call came sooner than he was expecting, maybe an hour or so.

"Hi, is this Alec?"

"This is."

"Hi. Vanessa Spencer, Eliot's mom. Martin's getting the car, we're on our way, but I couldn't- is there any news?"

"They're hoping the paralysis is temporary, but the swelling needs to go down before they can be certain. Eliot's asleep, but we'll be in the waiting room when you get here."

"We're ten minutes out," Mrs. Spencer replied.

Alec blinked. He'd thought getting the car meant pulling it out of the garage, but apparently they'd already arrived at the airport.

"Just landed."

"Park in the red lot, I'll be waiting by the door. Red shirt, black jeans, and I'll take you right to him."

Alec checked the time once he'd hung up. He'd only called them a few hours ago. How they'd managed to get on a plane and land so quickly was beyond him.

But hell, if that was the only good luck Eliot was going to get today, Alec wasn't going to question it.


Alec recognized Eliot's parents the moment they stepped through the doors. His mother was short, with dark hair going gray that looked unaccustomed to being so unkempt. Eliot had clearly gotten most of his looks from his father, except for the height. He was tall, with blue eyes and white hair, broad in the shoulders, with a strong grip and searching eyes.

"Are you…?"

"Alec Hardison, wish we were meeting under better circumstances." After they'd shaken hands, he gestured back down the hallway, knowing that neither of them were particularly interested in small talk. "This way."

As they crossed the waiting area and went into to Eliot's room, he saw Sophie noticing them, but introductions could wait. The Spencers went in alone to talk to the doctor, but Alec couldn't stop himself from looking through the door as they went inside.

He couldn't see anything from where he was standing, and a moment later, the door closed.



That didn't make any sense. It sounded like Mom, when it should've been-

"Hey there, Eliot," and his eyes finally focused just as he registered dad's voice.

"Hey," he managed, not trusting himself to say more. If they were there, things were serious. When he tried to raise his head, something in his back screamed sharply through the painkillers, as if to confirm it. He couldn't tell if Mom's face had been that pale a moment ago, didn't have the heart to shake off her hand when she fluttered around, his arm, his shoulder, his hand.

"The doctor filled us in," Dad sighed, leaning against the railing at the foot of his bed, looking warily at the leg cast suspended above the mattress. "Said you'd be in here for a while."

For a while.

"Yeah. Went down pretty badly, I guess." Mom squeezed his hand, then backed off, as if a broken finger or two, at this point, even mattered. It was hard to look at her, she was almost crying.

She took a steadying breath. "What happened?"

And he didn't know what to say. Didn't know what they knew, not all of it.

It was like the car crash when he was seventeen, trying to figure out a way to talk about it without mentioning the party over at Jesse's house. It was like the first time he came back from Kuwait, arm in a cast, still in stitches and couldn't tell them everything.

"Car came around a corner too fast, caught me by surprise," he said, because it was the truth, anyway. "Beyond that, I'm not sure."

"They said you knocked your head pretty hard," Dad said, nodding, as if that was enough, and he was frowning. "They also said…"

If he'd glanced away when he'd said it, it might've just been a prompt. But he'd held Eliot's eyes, pinned him there against the pillows, and let them sink in.

It was a technique that had apparently served him well during litigation, but every time he'd used it on Eliot, it had amounted to the same thing. I told you so.

He pretended not to notice. "If it's not just the swelling, I might not walk again," Eliot finished, closing his eyes. He wished they hadn't come. "Yeah. I know."


"What're we going to tell them?" Alec asked Sophie. He'd thought they'd have a lot longer to work on a story, but they were here, now, already in talking with Eliot.

For the first time, Alec was grateful that it was Sophie, waiting there with him, not Nate or Parker. When Eliot's parents came out of the room again, wide eyed and slack-faced, she made her way over to introduce herself, then brought them back to where Alec was sitting.

"I'm Sophie, I work with Eliot," she began, speaking in a gentle, almost-southern drawl. "How's he doing? Were you able to talk to him?"

Eliot's mother's face wrenched, for a moment, but she forced herself to start. "They're still waiting for the swelling to go down, but for now…" She shook her head. "He said he was…hit by a car? That it came around a corner too fast for him to react?"

Sophie nodded, and Alec relaxed, just a bit. They didn't have any details, they didn't know that Eliot had been-

"So what else happened?" Mr. Spencer looked between them, his eyes settling on Alec a little longer than Alec would've liked, like he was trying to read his mind. "'Cause I've got to say, this is a little…unexpected. You mind filling in the blanks?"

"Of course," Sophie nodded. "We were working a case," she began, startlingly honest. "His orders were to secure the exit for our people inside. His approach was to attract the attention of all the… I'm sorry, but surely you understand how vague I must be when it comes to some of our operations, but. He was distracting the guards working the perimeter. They were all ex-military, but Eliot, he wasn't having any trouble. He'd even said that it seemed like they'd been neglecting to keep up with their training." Sophie smiled gently then, and it was working already, Eliot's dad was relaxing, his mom trying a watery smile. "But he was outnumbered, and as backup was coming in to assist, one of the enemy agents, who'd managed to escape, swerved at him as he passed."

Mr. Spencer nodded, seeming to accept the explanation, such as it was. "Did your people get out?"

"All safe and sound, but for Eliot. They wouldn't have made it were it not for him."

And apparently, Eliot hadn't only inherited his father's appearance, because Mr. Spencer sighed, and nodded. "Good, that's good."

"Can you tell us," Mrs. Spencer was wringing her hands in her lap. "Of course, we know that his work is on a need-to-know basis, but. Is there anything you can tell us?"

"Right now, because of his actions, the components for a very dangerous weapon are being recovered and prepared for transport back to a secure facility," Sophie said. Alec balked, until he realized that it wasn't even a lie, and wondered how she'd spin it if they'd been trying to steal art, or jewels, when Eliot had gone down.

Mrs. Spencer looked as if she wanted to ask more, but she held herself back, clearly accustomed to knowing only a little about her son's work. "Days like this, you really wish he'd just gone into the family business," she muttered, her eyes back on Eliot's door.

Alec nodded, then looked at them, pretending that he didn't already know the answer. "What is the family business, if you don't mind my asking?"

"We deal primarily in investment litigation," Mr. Spencer said, "but we do the occasional intellectual property case now and then." Alec nodded in fake surprise, and Sophie, too, seemed taken aback. Mr. Spencer smiled, briefly. "Ah. Yes. You'd never know it to look at him, but at one point, until he made his disinterest plainly known, we used to think that he might join the firm, someday."

"Most children of lawyers, one would think, would take advantage, or at least party it up, not enlist." Sophie smirked, clearly fishing for more.

"Oh, he did," Mrs. Spencer frowned, glancing sideways at her husband. "From junior high on, he was a bit of a…"

"He was the wild one of the family," her husband finished for her, his words clipped, as if trying to minimize their importance. "His enlistment actually came as part of a plea bargain, it was that or two years on probation."

"Really," Sophie glanced at Alec, who likewise, didn't know how to react. This, he hadn't known.

"Jail might've been safer," Eliot's mother said, shaking her head and looking sadly again at the door.


The nurses came out and said that Eliot probably wouldn't be waking up before tomorrow, with all the painkillers in his system, but they'd scheduled the first surgery for early morning.

"You're welcome to come and sit with him, before," she told Eliot's parents, and it was bizarre, not being included. Kind of heartbreaking, but he let Sophie guide him to the car and drive him home.

Alec didn't sleep at all, that night, and was sitting in his car in the red lot, staring at the hospital building by seven in the morning.


Mrs. Spencer's number was flashing on his phone.

"Alec? It's Vanessa."

"Hi, how's…everything?"

"His leg's set, they've got a permanent cast on, now. The swelling isn't- hasn't going down to any major degree, and, well. He's not in a very good mood."

"I can imagine."

"Yes, well. Listen. Martin and I are going out in a little while to pick out some things for him, some books on tape, something to read. There's a television in there, but. He's going to be short on distractions, and I was wondering if maybe you'd come sit with him?"

"Of course, I'll be right there," Alec replied, just as an ambulance passed, sirens coming on as it reached the edge of the lot.

Mrs. Spencer, at least, sounded amused. "You're sitting outside, aren't you?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Good," she said, and hung up the phone.


For all she'd said, Mom really didn't seem that set on leaving, even once Alec arrived.

Eliot didn't really want to see anyone, but if he was going to have to choose? Another two minutes, and his folks were going to drive him to justifiable homicide. It would take Alec at least twice that long to force Eliot to the same point.

Finally, though, she was gone.

"Hey," Alec said, pulling up a chair, kissing his forehead as he sat down. It was the same place Mom had kissed him a minute ago, and it was odd, realizing that his boyfriend had just kissed his mother by proxy.

These drugs were great. He was numb all over, could almost pretend that they were why he couldn't feel his legs. He forced his attention back on Alec before the thought could take hold.

Alec's eyes were darting over the tubes, the traction, the entire ruined wreck of him, and it was starting to make him think again. "So," he tried. "You guys finish the job?"

"Parker and Nate. Last night. It's done. And don't worry about that, anyway."

"If I don't, I'm pretty much left with the elephant in the room."

"Yeah. Guess so."

Eliot wasn't sure who'd reached out first, but both of Alec's hands were wrapped around his, and yeah, he'd already mentioned the elephant, might as well face it head-on.

"So. If it's not just the swelling," he began. "Could be…"

"Yeah, I know. We'll work it out, but don't think like that." Dad had said the same thing. Unfortunately, neither of their words were going to change anything.

"Yeah," he said, because he'd managed as much for his parents, and Alec looked almost as terrified. It was easier to move on to the next elephant. "So. You met my folks."

"Yeah," Alec grinned. "They're not as bad as I was expecting. Not really what I was expecting at all, I mean, I knew they were lawyers, but..."


"They have their own jet."

"They told you?"

"Didn't have to. Checked their itinerary coming in to town," Alec admitted.

"Did it say anything regarding a return trip?"

"What? Of course not, man." Alec shook his head. "But the jet's been sent out to Ohio, so it looks your sister's on the way."

"Oh." Fuck, if she brought Jonas? Eliot didn't want his nephew seeing him like this.

"You don't sound happy."

"She and my mom get together, it's going to be... I dunno. They feed off each other like you wouldn't believe."

"I might," Alec said, but instead of joking, he continued with, "This is scaring the hell out of everyone, you know."


The nurses came in to start prepping for the doctor, so as Alec made his way down to the coffee shop, he checked his voicemail. Two messages from Nate, one each from Parker and Sophie, all amounting to the same thing. "How is he, we'll be there soon, don't worry."

Don't worry. Eliot was in traction, immobilized from the chest down, and it might be permanent.

He called Nate first, updated him on everything. "We're all on the visitation list, and Sophie already laid the groundwork, so they're not going to be suspicious."

"I'm going to go over it again with Parker, " Nate decided. "She's, ah. Worried, and she's. Never mind. But, ah, hey. Does he need anything?"

"His parents are out shopping, but his ipod is back home. Might be good."

"Right, right. Ah, I'll come grab the keys, drop Parker off, and go get it. Can even give you a ride home if you need it."

"Thanks, but I think I'm gonna stick around for a while," Alec stepped in to place at the end of the coffee line, wondering how messy things could be with a worried Parker running around the hospital when El's parents came back. "How about you take Parker, have her break into the house, grab the ipod, then come over here?"

"You want us breaking in?"

"Might calm her down a bit if she's doing something," Alec grinned disarmingly at the woman standing in front of him, who was clearly too worried about her own reasons for being there to even notice his planning a theft.

Nate snorted. "I know how she feels. We'll be there in a bit."


Eliot was trying to get his breathing back under control, the post-op exam had been excruciating. Even the most minor of movements below the shoulders had torn through his chest and upper back.

And his legs were killing him.

"I don't know," Doctor Jones had looked at her clipboard speculatively. "While that could be a very good possibility, it seems that it's a bit early. At the moment, it's a bit more likely that you're experiencing what they call phantom pains. It's when-"

"I know what it is," Eliot muttered angrily, because it was a better way to discharge the panic spike than what he wanted to do, which was scream, cry, throw something. Run.

He couldn't run from this if he wanted to.

Once the nurse was finally satisfied that he was settled, she paused. "You've got a visitor, if you're ready to see him. If not, I can tell him you're sleeping." The room was silent, for a moment, Eliot hadn't realized how quiet it was, in here, when nobody was talking. And he was just realizing that the pain in his legs was gone, suddenly. Along with his legs.

"Let him in."

Alec eyes widened, not when he caught sight of the mess that was Eliot's body, but when he saw his face. "Hey," he said, wrapping a hand around Eliot's. "What is it?"

Eliot closed his eyes, tried to hide. He didn't want to admit it. "I'm still here."

"So am I," Alec offered, after a moment. "Your folks are probably on their way back by now, Parker and Nate are committing a felony that's probably involving the hallway window outside your bedroom, and Sophie's apparently making a casserole for your folks. She'll be by later."

Eliot almost opened his eyes. "Sophie cooks?"

"She could be subcontracting it out, but," he shrugged. "People, you know?"

Eliot didn't have a response, but felt the kiss Alec pressed on his forehead. "You need anything?"

"Nah," Eliot said, then remembered. "You know when my sister's going to be here?"

"Few hours," Alec confirmed, looking down at his phone. "Flying alone."

Eliot didn't know what they were supposed to talk about as the silence stretched itself out. He was tired, and though Alec had sat himself down, and sounded like he was messing with his computer, it was starting to make him uncomfortable, like there were things happening around him that he couldn't control.

He opened his eyes again. It didn't help much.

Even if the pain in his leg had actually only been in his head, he wished it would come back.


It was obvious that the Spencers wanted some time alone with Eliot, so Alec volunteered to pick Tessa up from the airport, and pretended that the photo of her that Mrs. Spencer showed him was more useful than the driver's license photo he'd already pulled and saved on his phone.

Alec rolled the window down as he pulled out of the parking lot. Out on the highway, the rest of Boston looked amazingly like it always did. Businesses were still open, I-90 was already filling up with rush hour, and the airport parking lot was packed.

He was waiting when Tessa stepped out of the Terminal.

"Tessa Knudson?"

"Name's Alec Hardison, I'm-"

"Oh! Hi, yeah, my mother just called to tell me you were my ride." She adjusted her bag over her shoulder, shook her head when Alec reached out for it. "Thanks for this."

"No problem. You have any bags?"

"No. For once, I'm traveling light." At Alec's sidelong glance she shook her head. "Usually, I've got my son, Jonas, with me, but our au pair was able to work it out to stay with him. The woman is a saint. But enough about that, how's my brother?"

"He's fine," Alec blurted, not really knowing why. "I mean. Okay. He's alive. Got hit by a car and so far, the swelling's too bad in his lower back to know if the, ah…paralysis he's got is permanent."

"Oh." From her expression, it was clear that she'd expected to hear that he'd already made a full recovery.

Alec couldn't blame her. "Yeah. But. He's tough," he found himself saying, but he ran out of assurances as they exited the airport.

The ride back was mostly silent.


Alec had thought making small talk with Eliot's family had been excruciating, but he didn't know how bad it could get until Nate and Parker arrived. Nate, so far, was holding up okay. El's folks didn't know him well enough to read the full magnitude of his discomfort inside the hospital. Parker was skittish around the couple, but so far, hadn't managed to say anything to freak them out.

It helped that most of the time, all attention was on Eliot. It also helped that Sophie was on the line, feeding them tips.

Alec first caught on when he saw Nate suddenly glance sideways, as if listening to something, and then realized that he'd not once turned away from the group. Looking down at his collar, Alec saw the button cam.

They were running this like a job. It was equal points comforting and horrifying.

A few minutes later, he ducked out through the waiting room, down the hall and out to the van, grabbing two comm units from the case in back, pocketing the one that didn't go into is ear.

He hazarded a guess. "Sophie?"

"Hardison, hi," Sophie said, cutting herself off. "Parker, don't worry, she's not asking because she's looking to make an arrest, she's just trying to find out a little about her brother's friends. They all already know that he's involved in some classified work, use that."

"Seriously? You're running a job on Eliot's family."

"No, but would you let Nate and Parker in there without any backup?"

"Not complaining, just impressed," Alec grabbed an old sweater of Parker's from the back before slamming the door shut. "Good call on the button cams. I've got an extra earbud for Eliot, Parker, I'll pass it to you for the handoff. Feels weird, him not being in on this."

"Good idea," Nate said, but for all Alec knew, he could've been responding to something Mr. Spencer was saying.


Eliot wasn't sure how much longer he was going to be able to hold it together, with them all standing around like they were already at his wake. If he'd had the choice, he would've followed Alec out when he bailed out into the hallway.

Tessa had run out of things to say after delivering the Jonas report. He'd be starting at Andrews Osbourne Academy at the end of summer, and had just gotten back from camp yesterday. He liked tennis and horseback riding. It was hard to ignore the relieved look on Dad's face when Tessa started in on the girl Jonas had a crush on, but so far, everyone had been civil. The digs hadn't started yet.

Maybe they were saving that for when the company was gone. As the conversation turned to the ski trip over last Christmas, it didn't take a genius to predict that any moment, now, someone was going to start asking why Eliot hadn't come.

"So what were you up to, anyway?" Dad asked, and there it was.

The painkillers were making it hard to track Nate's monotone as he wove some near-truths together, talking about how a mission for the agency had required that all operatives remained in play over the holidays.

Mom frowned, the way she always did whenever Eliot's chosen livelihood came up, but Dad nodded and let the matter drop. At least Eliot was off the hook for that, then.

Nate's eyes, the whole time, had been alert, watching, the way they were when he was monitoring the job from inside, keeping eyes on all the players. Parker had been nervous, tense, but was hiding it amazingly well, even if she was staring a hole into the side of Tessa's head as she went on about Jonah's science fair project.

She didn't relax until Alec came back in, passing her a sweater. He didn't give a damn about the sweater, but for once, he thought he understood what she was feeling.


Rather be locked in close quarters with Chaos, right now, Alec thought, nodding along at another of Tessa's examples of just how gifted her son was. And when Parker cooed, suddenly interested, thanks to Sophie's prompting, in the kid's tennis abilities? Rappelling was starting to look fun.

Over on the bed, El seemed to be thinking the same thing. By the looks of it, he was contemplating going without the ropes

"…and I know, Eliot, you'd much prefer your nephew to be playing something like football or hockey, but the Academy-" Alec could hear the capitalization, "doesn't offer it."

"That's why you sent him there, right?" Eliot smirked, but he was clearly starting to get annoyed. "Just to drive me nuts."

It was odd, watching Eliot interact with his family. It wasn't just the way they were all dressed, or their mannerisms, though if he'd just walked into the room, he would've pegged them as Sophie's family, not Eliot's. Not in a million years.

But El had been doing this weird comfortably uncomfortable thing, which yeah, all right, was probably due to the painkillers he was probably riding, but there was something else. As if he was okay with hearing about his nephew's part in the school play almost a year after the fact, or at least used to it, as if he didn't think it was a problem.

To anyone looking, if the Spencers had any issues about what Eliot did for a living, they'd all agreed to the terms of the impasse a long time ago. It was obvious in Mr. Spencer's detachment, in Mrs. Spencer's forced grins and in the questions that none of them asked.

And it wasn't as if Alec didn't know any better, anyway.

"…so yeah. Long story short? The Exodus camp was a huge waste of money, but by the time it was finally fucking over, I'd figured out that my folks didn't need to know that sending me off to get scared straight with a bunch of other horny teenage guys wasn't the cure they'd been hoping for. After that, I just played it cool. A year later, I was out of there."

Eliot rose up on his forearms and shook the hair out of his face, eyes still glinting mischievously, and reached for the iced tea, rubbing the condensation ring off the nightstand with the side of his hand. "When did you tell your Nana 'bout the entire," he waved a hand, "guy thing?"

Alec shrugged, still trying to picture Eliot at age seventeen, having a blast at the camp that was supposed to "rehabilitate" him. It didn't jive. Not at all. "Didn't have to."

"Of course not, right," Eliot pulled a face that looked far more amused than he'd looked three weeks before, standing with Alec on Nana's front stoop, waiting for her to answer the door. "Psychic powers, that woman."

"You're damned right," Alec smirked. "I still think she had it figured out before I did. She freaked out for a few days, then one day, I came home from school and she handed me a box of condoms. Showed me how to put them on using a banana, like I already hadn't sussed that one out."

Eliot's face was frozen in horror, his eyes wide. "I don't know, man," he said, trying not to laugh. "The camp sounds a lot less horrific, all of a sudden."

"That depends," Alec smirked, "on whether I can find any pictures of you singing campfire songs."

"You know, I think I've been wrong this entire time," Eliot made like he was going to get out of bed. "The camp totally worked. I'm never having sex with you again."


"You look beat," Alec said, as if just realizing that Eliot was injured. "We should let you get some sleep."

Eliot had never wanted to kiss the man more, but he was leaving, heading back out the door already. Gone. The others all began to make their way out the door, each pausing to make just a little more coffin-stop small talk before heading out. Parker went last.

"I'm glad you're not dead," she said, as she grabbed his hand, tight. "But this place sucks."

Laughing hurt so much that he didn't even realize he was holding the earpiece until she'd already gone.


Listening in to everyone as they ate had seemed like a good idea at the time, but hearing them all talking, Nate and Alec taking the lead, Sophie mostly on the line to warn Parker away from minor behavioral insanities, was making Eliot ache.

At first, it had been funny, growling at Alec when he commented at the old pictures Mom was apparently showing him on her phone- he'd just enlisted, they'd all had to cut their hair, then- but soon, the appeal had started to wear off.

Sophie was the only one who could speak to Eliot directly, though the others did what they could to keep him in the loop, same as any other time circumspection was required. But besides turning his parents- and yeah, he'd glossed over things with them, he'd had to- into marks that the team was about to take down, Eliot couldn't stop feeling like he was waiting for the cue, waiting for someone to cut in with a worried pause, before giving the signal for Eliot to move in.

Eliot wouldn't be able to move in, not now.

Maybe not ever.

And the world was carrying on without him.

The nurse came in with Eliot's lunch as Nate was weaving together a sanitized version of the Belgrade orphan scam. Parker was describing the fight that had gone down, the way Eliot had managed to get her and all the kids to safety, almost by accident.

And in here, the nurse was shaking her head, insisting on feeding him, saying that the less he moved his arms and shoulders, the better.

He only managed a little, let his exhaustion bolster his defense, and closed his eyes until she went away.

A while later, he was dimly aware of the voices on the line, of the nurse explaining that Eliot was asleep, that they should give him an hour or two. The concerned small talk they were still attempting became painful, at that point, and Eliot did what he should've done from the start. He took his earbud out.


They all stopped in again before heading out for the evening, talking about showers, food, sleep. Sophie would be there in a while to visit for a bit and take Alec home- which was a relief, he was looking so exhausted that Eliot was starting to have visions of the van, rolling off the side of the highway, toppling down an embankment.

Alec was still here, though, sitting on the chair, close. Safe for now. "You went off comms, everything okay?" He was holding his own earpiece in the palm of his hand, nobody else was listening. It was just the two of them, here, unless…

"You guys got this entire place wired?"

"Just earbuds and Nate's button cam," Alec grimaced. "Sorry, we were just worried that Parker-"

"It's fine," Eliot lied, reminding himself that it wasn't their fault, they were just doing what they could. It wasn't their fault that he was more useless than he'd ever been, or that they felt like they needed to protect him. Or that they might not have been wrong to try.

"Hey," Alec leaned close, rubbing his shoulder. "Talk to me. What's going on in there?"

Eliot scoffed, rolled his eyes. It was all he could manage. "What do you think?"

For a moment, he thought that Alec got it, that it wasn't something that needed to be said aloud. But Eliot's luck hadn't been very good, lately, and a sidelong glance caught Alec's flinch, like he'd been struck. Like maybe he was finally tired of playing dutiful boyfriend, like he was about to stand up and walk out and relieve both of them of this stupid fucking mess.

Fuck. Eliot couldn't do much of anything, anyway, couldn't interact. He might as well get used to being alone, too. At least the sad eyes looking at him would be gone.

"I think you're freaking out. That we all are." He took a breath and sat back, just far enough that Eliot couldn't make out his expression. "I think that Nate's back home going over the list of clients, already planning your return, because he can't think about anything else. I know that Parker got off the bus over at a medical supply store, ten minutes after it closed. And from what I heard, Sophie's dropping your parents off at the hotel, probably still giving them assurances that she can't guarantee, while your sister's in he back seat calling her son and telling him that everything's going to be all right. That pretty much leaves me to sit here and tell you that we're trying to cover the bases, here. So that you don't have to."

Eliot realized he was holding his breath, and let it out. "That's good. 'Cause there's not much that I can do."

"At the moment."


"At the moment," Alec repeated, finally coming into view again. "Look. It might not be temporary. That's fine. You wind up in a wheelchair and some things are a pain in the ass, but you'll get used to it. Probably figure out a way to highjack a hot air balloon using the handbrakes, for all I know, not that I'm suggesting it. But people a lot less strong than you manage to get by."

"I'm not going to be able to stay on the team."

"Bullshit. We'll adapt. It's fine."

Eliot snapped.

"Stop it, okay? Please. This entire everything's fine act, it's fucking patronizing. Tell you what, I'll accept that we might manage, as long as you accept that we might not. I can't even feed myself because they're worried about me aggravating my back. They tell me that I've got a fractured vertebra, that much I know for sure. But also? I've got a catheter in right now, at least I think I do, because I can't feel it. My broken leg should be aching like a bitch, but I can't feel a damned thing."

For all the steam he'd gathered, he cut himself off before the next words could come out, dangerously close to the surface as they were. And at some point, you're going to see that I'm right, you're going to be disappointed, you're going to give up, but you're still going to keep coming around, killing yourself over this when you really should've left, however good your intentions are right now. He took a breath, made sure the words were buried. "So forgive me if I'm freaking out, but at the moment, I've got a pretty good reason."

"I know," Alec said, shaking his head, looking like he knew he was fighting a losing battle. "Just. You've got reasons not to, too, if you want them."

"Right." Lying down like this was messing with his voice, it didn't come out the way he wanted, sounded harsh, even to him.

Alec's phone vibrated, finally bringing the conversation to an end. "Sophie's just coming in. I'll just be-" he gestured at the door as he stood up, but stopped when Eliot caught his hand.

"You're coming back tomorrow, right?" It was the fact that he was lying down, or maybe that his throat was dry, that made it sound so pathetic.

Alec snorted, then leaned down to kiss him properly. "'Course, man. First thing."


In the morning, a squadron of nurses and doctors came in to begin the grueling task of moving Eliot down towards diagnostics.

After that, he hadn't really been sure what was going on at any specific time. Between the drugs, the pain, and the boredom, he faded in and out for hours as he was wheeled in and out of MRI machines, given CT scans, and X-rayed to the point of radioactivity. By the time he was back in his room, settled and fed, too tired to fight it and maybe just lucid enough to deal, the nurse told him he had visitors waiting outside.

"Sure. Yeah. Let 'em in."

He hadn't even realized how crowded it had been, before, with seven people crammed in here, staring at him. Especially with the guiltily amused expression Alec was wearing.

"So what've you all been talking about?" Eliot glared at Tessa. She couldn't dissemble for the life of her, but she tried.


Parker crouched next to the bed, whispering conspiratorially, clearly already planning something. "Did you know your sister keeps baby pictures of you on her computer? And pictures from high school? And summer camp?"

"What?" Oh, God. If he was lucky, Parker was plotting a heist. Possibly revenge. "Tess?"

Under his scrutiny, her expression became a whole lot harder to read. She knew what he was worried about, but she wasn't going to say it out loud. Instead, she shifted the emphasis. "Jonas had a school project and needed a few. After that, I figured, well, we already had the scanner out, so…"

"Halloween. 1983," Alec raised his hands, too obviously trying to lighten the mood. "Little Murdock Spencer, that's all I'm saying. Just, you know, I thought you would've gone as Mr. T."

Eliot rolled his eyes, but decided to forgive him when he noticed that at least Mom was grinning again.

There was another awkward lull, until Nate asked Dad about investment litigation. After that, as the conversation continued, it was almost possible to forget why they were all really standing there.

Any minute now, the doctors were going to come in with the results from this morning's scans.


There was a knock at the door, cutting Dad off mid-sentence, and finally Dr. Stoller was coming in, quirking her brow at the number of people she found.

"I'd like to talk with Eliot alone, if you don't mind," she said, and this was it. As the others filtered out, silent beyond a few muted good lucks, Eliot took a breath. Thankfully, Dr. Stoller took pity on him and got right down to it.

"I've had some time to review your results," she said, sitting on the chair that Parker had just vacated, fiddling with her tablet computer. "And I'm sure you'll be happy to hear that you're healing as well as we could've hoped. Comparing this morning's scans to the ones done on intake," she showed him the screen, the two images only making the haziest amounts of sense. "The inflammation's already gone down quite a bit. You see that, there?"

"That the fracture?"

"Yes. It's a mild extension fracture, and honestly? I'd been expecting them to be much worse, since the first scans were a bit blurred."

"Am I going to need surgery?"

"That depends on you. That brace you're wearing? You're going to need it for two or three months."


"Or we can do a very complicated surgery, have you back in here for another two weeks, and then make you wear the brace for three or four months. And if you're dreading the physical therapy we're already lining up for you, you're going to love the post-operative plan."

"Okay," Eliot replied, trying to ignore the fact that she was reminding him a bit too much of Nate. "Fine."


"So when can I get out of here?"

"Another day or two, I'm guessing. Of course, arrangements will have to be made for home care," she held up a folder that looked distressingly full of paperwork and pamphlets. "I can give it to your family, if you'd like."

"I got it," Eliot said, hoping she didn't ask why he was reaching out for the folder.

"No problem. Now. I suggest you get some rest. I'll let your visitors in so you can give them the good news, unless you'd rather have me-"

"Nah, I'll do it," Eliot grinned, opening to the first sheet as she stood. "Thanks."


He's smiling, was pretty much all that Alec was thinking as he followed Parker back into El's room.

"Doctor said we could only come in for a few minutes," Alec said, already feeling the tension draining from his back.

"If everything keeps going at the right rate, in a few days, they're going to let me go home. Going to have to start physical therapy in a week or so. So yeah. Bed-rest and boredom."

"That's wonderful," Tessa gushed, leaning over to brush a stray strand out of Eliot's face.

Alec probably wasn't the only one who noticed Eliot trying to duck the contact, but Tessa's grin only spread.

"I've been going over reviews online to find a good home-care assistant," Mrs. Spencer cut in, "but in the meantime, is there anything we can do to get your place set up?" Her tone switched to careful censure. "We don't even know where you live, you know."

Any other people, in any other room, would have laughed it off. But Alec could see the frown just setting in at the edges of Mr. Spencer's mouth as he snorted, the narrowing of the eyes as he prepared to rehash what had probably been a sore point for years, possibly using that as the springboard to bring up a hundred other long-standing complaints. Alec's mind spun, trying to come up with a cover story, a deflection, a distraction, and he could see Eliot taking a breath, about to lie outright.

"We can handle it," Nate saved Eliot the trouble, managing to keep the offer sounding just this side of polite. "I've already been in contact with our insurance people, the gears are already working there, so…"

"That would probably be the wisest course," Mrs. Spencer admitted, after a searching glance between Eliot and her husband that Alec couldn't read.


Eliot had been patient, he'd waded through awkward silences and conversations that were twice as awkward. He'd stared at the ceiling for hours on end at night, counting the seconds. He'd been staring out the window for an hour now, hoping that Parker, Nate and Sophie weren't completely destroying the house right now, wondering if the rain would let up by this afternoon.

He clenched his toes again, unclenched them, just because he could. He wanted to scratch at his leg under the cast.

He wanted his family to leave, already. Back quietly out of his life where he could ignore them, most of the time. Far enough that he didn't have to work so hard to not respond to conversations happening elsewhere on comms, not to look too long at Alec, not to smile too much.

And finally, after a hundred promises and assurances and warnings to be careful, and to call, if he needed anything, they'd left, all of them heading back to the airport together.

If Eliot hadn't been wearing the brace, his spine would've exploded with how suddenly the tension left.

He'd been so careful, for so long.

And then his mother had forgotten her purse, she'd come back into the room, and she'd found him kissing Alec.


Run. Just. Go.

Alec froze, as if Eliot's mom couldn't see him standing next to the bed, hands only inches away from where they'd been when she'd startled them. She was staring Eliot, and unless he turned, shot his eyes down towards the bed, there was no way of knowing what she was seeing. He had to read it all secondhand.

Her face was frozen, surprised, then her eyes kicked over to calculate, darting up at him briefly before honing in on Eliot again. The corners of her mouth were beginning to tense, about to move.

They turned down, and that, apparently, was the reboot his head had been waiting for. He stepped back, closer to Eliot- no sense hiding it now- dropped his hand near the edge of the bed, where El could grab it if he wanted to.

He didn't truly expect him to, though. That was the thing. But it happened anyway.

Eliot was looking at his mother, face blank, still challenging. Waiting for her to make the first move, and suddenly, it was a goddamned standoff.

Surprisingly, after a few moments that felt like eons, Eliot spoke first. "Feel free to have a problem with this if you want."

His mom blinked, then shook her head. "I just came in for my purse," she said, picking it up from the floor where she'd left it. Her raised eyebrow was a negotiation, but beyond that, Alec had no idea what it meant. Eliot, though, was probably better versed in his mother's mannerisms.

"Right. Cool. Thanks."

A moment later, the door was shut behind her, and only then did Eliot's eyes widen in shock.


"You want me to-"

"No." Which was just as well, since Alec had no idea, honestly, what he'd meant to offer. He hadn't even been sure it would've involved letting go of Eliot's hand, but El's grip tightened, and he tore his eyes from the spot where his mother had stood.

Alec let him look, not letting go as he sat down again in the chair, close enough that Eliot could still see him without straining his back. He gave it a few minutes, waited for him to spin back around enough to deal with speaking.

"Hey, El. How're you doing?"

"I have no idea." Finally, he looked at Alec directly, the shock still evident on his face. "She knows."

"Think she's going to tell your dad?"

Eliot gave a small shake of the head. "No."

"Then don't worry about it right now." They're gone, and there's nothing more you need to do except get better. They only matter as much as you want them to.


The next few weeks were hell. Slow. Frustrating. Painful. Sometimes terrifying, and though he didn't let on, nothing was slipping past Alec, these days. Ever since the conversation they'd had, the day after he'd gotten home, needed help just getting out of the bed that they'd moved down onto the first floor.

"Did I fuck up?" Alec's voice was oddly quiet as he helped Eliot into the kitchen. "Calling your family, I mean."

"I don't know. I don't think so. It's cool." Alec wasn't convinced, though. "Look. It's just as well. They're not awful people or anything, it's just. Weird. I haven't made heads or tails of it, and I've had years of practice. So don't worry about it. I'm not pissed, or anything."

"Yeah, I know," Alec nodded, puffing up as he recovered himself. "Just, you know. Figured I should ask."

Eliot snorted. "Figure you should make me something to eat."

Alec grinned, rolled his eyes, and was probably muttering something along the lines of freakin' bossy, man, when Eliot kissed him.

"Hey, man. We've got it covered," Alec steered him towards a chair as the doorbell rang. Moments later, voices filled the hallway.

"Hey, ah, Eliot?"

"In the kitchen," Alec called back. Parker and Sophie were debating the apparent wrongness of tabouli as they followed Nate into the kitchen, carrying bags from the Derne Street deli.

Sophie made a beeline towards Eliot, her hand coming up to his shoulder. "Should you be up and about?"

"It's okay for a little while," Eliot said. "Release instructions are over at the counter if you don't believe me."

She shot Alec a calculating look as she moved over to read them, one that clearly said if he's covering for you, you're both dead, but Alec was already rifling through the bags, opening containers, helping Parker pull out silverware. Nate was grabbing drinks, bringing them over to the table and smirked when he caught Eliot eying the beers, pushing a glass of iced tea over to him instead.

And this was the thing, Eliot figured, when everyone was seated, talking, and mostly ignoring the fact that Alec was reaching across the table for cartons, filling Eliot's plate just to spare him the effort. These were the people he wanted around, and who didn't mind being here. These people were his family.

Under the table, he could feel the rasp of fabric and bone and muscle, Alec's leg brushing against his own. He wouldn't have it any other way.


~~~~~~~~ Back to Leverage ~~~~~~~~



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