What Else Would You Have Me Be?

Chapter 6

"You know that guy?" Donovan asked, and shit, Eliot had been careful not to stare, not to give anything away.

Hardison in here meant one of two things. Either this was phase one of Nate's plan, setting the stage for something about to hit, or things on the outside had gotten much worse than Eliot had suspected.

"Huh. No idea." Eliot shrugged, casually glancing back towards the basketball hoop. "You?"

"He's staring," Donovan said, shaking his head. "Weird."

Alec's body language- surprised and confused- could've meant anything as he approached his side of the fence, and Eliot shifted his weight to his other foot, about to take a step forward, when Donovan noted," he's coming this way, you think…"

The last thing he needed was Donovan's curiosity. He aborted the movement.


This was the most carefully stupid thing Alec had ever done, but it was too late to back out now.

Nate was going to kill him, if Sophie didn't get him first. But there hadn't been time for a better plan. Tara wasn't going to be able to get back in until tomorrow, and there was no way to get Sophie in before Saturday. And for all he'd known, Donovan had already been closing in for the kill.

He'd prepared. Comms were easy. Two earpieces and his phone were all he needed

The phone would hold a charge for three days, and set to piggyback off the wireless and relay via satellite back to JARVIS. More than enough time to get a warning through to Eliot, and the moment Sophie found the note he'd left, the rest of the team would be on comms as it all played out.


Going through his case of backups, he found what he was looking for- an earpiece he'd built last year. The earbud itself was of his own design, but he'd built it into a hearing aid he'd bought online, Large enough to be noticed immediately, but not noted. He'd been halfway through making a second one when reality had set in and sent him back to the drawing board. One person with a hearing aid was one thing. Four, though, was a bit much.

Still, it was exactly what he needed to get through a search, and yeah, the Maricopa County Jail wasn't the Hilton, but it wasn't going to do any of them any favors to have an inmate who couldn't hear them.

Even better? All he needed to do was hollow out the hearing aid's casing, and it was just large enough to hold a second earbud inside.

All he'd have to do was get it to Eliot.


The last thing he'd done, before going out and getting himself arrested, was to check the jail's systems for any changes in Eliot's status. He'd estimated the time it would take to get through booking and intake, and guessed that his arrival would coincide with the felony block's yard time, but once he'd gotten started, Alec had been in an information blackout. Eliot could've been moved down to isolation, or worse, the infirmary. Anything could've happened in the meantime, even the morgue, which Alec refused to think about.

He'd made it through intake, gotten printed and searched, charged and changed, given an armload of mostly-clean sheets, and finally led out with to Tent City by a guard named Miller, who'd muttered something about a labor roster before disappearing.

He was contemplating the cot and the heat and the idiocy of this entire enterprise, trying to figure out how he was going to get a message through into maximum security, when he glanced out in the yard.

Eliot was standing right there, less than thirty feet away, alive, uninjured, and looking very… bored, actually.

Alec's relief was short-lived, though. That boredom? That wasn't a good thing. It meant Eliot's guard was down. And with Donovan standing right next to him, with a shiv up his sleeve or stuck in his waistband, there was a very good chance that anything Alec did could be the distraction that he'd been waiting for.

Hand reaching up to his ear, Alec froze as a stray thought shot through, unbidden.

For all he knew, Donovan and Eliot had history. It made sense. Donovan was connected, somehow, to Moreau. And Eliot was letting the guy get within five feet of him.

And you got yourself locked up, burned your best alias just to warn him about a friendly visit.

It didn't track. Eliot's glances were bouncing off of him like he was an uninteresting part of the scenery. He wasn't shooting him any furious, angry glances, wasn't warning him off.

But if Eliot really was in with Donovan, Eliot wouldn't have any reason to pretend not to see him, wouldn't be feigning confusion as Donovan scowled and pointed in Alec's direction. He'd fill him in, or at least come forward to find out what Alec wanted before going back to tell Donovan what he'd learned.

Alec needed to think. He turned the hearing aid over in his hand, popping the case open in his fist and catching the second earbud as it fell out before reseating the hearing aid.

If Eliot wasn't close with Donovan, he'd keep him at arm's length. Eliot wouldn't show his hand, and right now? That included cluing Donovan in on any allies he had.

And fuck, Alec was in here to warn Eliot about a guy who was probably there to kill him. Screw everything else.


Sanchez, the guard who'd brought him in, was over checking with the warden to see if there was any room on the chain gang for a new intake. He'd be back in a minute.

He approached the fence, casually, as if he were merely checking out the yard.

He was evidently a bit too casual, a bit too focused on appearing non-threatening while he prepared to toss the earbud through the fences-and man he hoped that worked- he needed a string to pull it back in case it didn't.

But suddenly, Sanchez was banging on the fence right in front of him.

"Okay, Mr. Washington," Sanchez said, coming close and speaking loudly, same way everybody did when they noticed the hearing aid. "Tomorrow morning, first thing, you're joining the work crew. In the meantime, you're staying in here. And by here, I mean not within two feet of the fence, okay?"

"Uh, right," Alec stammered, stepping back from the fence. Shit. "Sorry."

Sanchez stepped back, heading for the Eliot and Donovan were moving off, back towards the building.

Alec had missed his chance, but didn't linger on it. He began formulating plan B as he watched everyone filter from the yard, heading inside.

Eliot was lagging behind, letting Donovan go ahead of him as they approached the building.

When Eliot reached the door, just before he went out of sight, he turned to shoot Alec a frustrated glare as he shrugged, and it's meaning was clear. What the fuck are you doing, man?

The worst part, though, was that he looked worried, and didn't yet know what he was actually supposed to be worrying about.



Eliot didn't know how they'd done it, he was too far out of the loop, hadn't heard anything about a plan involving Hardison actually getting his ass locked in here.

Maybe one of the deputies had noticed something. Maybe Arlington was smarter than they'd thought.

Maybe this had nothing to do with him. They were still working Santiago's case, after all, and yeah, Eliot was in jail, but it wasn't like he was going to be here very long. But the note hadn't said anything; there'd been no indication that they were worried.

But maybe the timeline had changed. Something, somewhere, some stupid little detail had poked its head up and thrown them all out of whack.

Maybe Parker was crawling through the air ducts right now.


There were no vents in the cell, no reason for them when one wall was made of bars. If she was coming, there was no way she'd manage a direct route. And whatever was going on, whatever had broken down in the planning meant that they were no longer just breaking one person out of jail, but two.


Eliot pretended to sleep, listening to Donovan flipping through his book on the bunk below, thankfully silent. Small fucking blessing.

He wasn't sure what worried him most. That they'd come up with a stupid plan, which involved planting Hardison out in Tent City, or that they hadn't planned it at all.

And he was locked in, with no way to make sure Hardison didn't do anything even more idiotic. It was bad enough, having Donovan trailing him around like he was scared of his own shadow, but Hardison?

Hardison should've known better. But apparently he didn't. And that was a concern.


Alec's options weren't great. He could tell Sanchez that someone named Donovan was planning a hit on his cellmate, but there was no guarantee that anyone he passed it on to, inside, would do anything about it. If Donovan was thrown into isolation, he'd just have to bribe the right guard to finish his job for him, and there was no way Alec would be able to figure out who, exactly, he'd bribed from out here.

He wasn't going to be able to do anything from Tent City, he needed to get inside.

Which meant doing something even more stupid than faking a bench warrant for unpaid tickets, reporting a car stolen that matched the make and model of the one he'd been using, tracking the patrol car down and getting ahead of it.

Luckily, he'd gotten very good at pissing off people who were tougher than him.


"My exit's blocked." Parker, still in the records office, sounded like she had company, and Eliot was still stuck in traffic, a few minutes out. "Nate?"

But Nate and Tara were in the middle of closing the deal with Varner upstairs, and Alec was already pushing himself back from his computer.

"I got this," he assured everyone, and jumped out of the van.

"Two guys," Parker warned him.

"Then I got this two more times," he crossed the street, ducking into the employee parking garage and swiping his card to get into the stairwell. Up one level, down a hallway, and he was nearly there. He started singing to himself, just loudly enough that his voice bounced off the cement walls and concrete floor. Coughed a few times, then began to hum, staggering drunkenly. He could hear the guards from here, and could tell when they'd heard him.

He was leaning against the wall, one hand on his zipper when they rounded the corner.

"What're you doing?" One of them called, but both were already rushing forward.

"Nothing, man. Just gotta, you know. Thought this was the bathroom." He looked at the guards straight on, and couldn't help it, he broke into a grin.

On the one hand, his cover was broken. On the other, he had their attention.

"How y'all doin'?" He said, waving, and began to run.


Eliot was just fine worrying about the mess that Hardison had gotten the team into until the guards came through on the cellblock address system, ordering everyone back into their cells. Moments later, McTeague came by, along with Salvo- the one Hardison'd said was down for the take- working down the other side. The doors slamming shut, cell after cell, made too much noise to overhear the words they were speaking into their radios.

"Lockdown again?" Donovan asked, standing up from his bunk. "What's going on now?"

"Dunno," Eliot said, but from here, he could just make out the guards heading towards the infirmary, maybe the cafeteria. Maybe back into the yard. "Probably another fight," he said, deliberately unconcerned. It made sense, with all the guards off the block, they'd had to secure the inmates.

It made even more sense a few minutes later, as five guards shoved three inmates Eliot didn't recognize past, moving them along the corridor. They were heading towards the stairs. Isolation, then.

"There's that guy again," Donovan commented, craning his neck to see through the bars. "Heading into the infirmary.

Eliot couldn't react, couldn't appear to care.


He'd pulled it off. It didn't matter what Eliot was saying.

It could've been worse. The bruises were starting to come up, but his right eye was the worst, swollen shut and damp from the ice pack that Tara had given him.

"You deserve each and every one of those," Eliot said, holding out a beer and sitting in the chair next to Nate's couch, chuckling. Half of that grin was because he'd enjoyed watching Alec get his ass kicked, no doubt, and the other half was because yes, once again, Eliot had saved the day, and he knew it.

The adrenaline had worn off in the car, and Alec wasn't feeling up for the trash talking, not really. "Whatever man, it worked." Maybe this- the running, the punching, the kicking- was why Eliot was usually so cranky.

Alec realized he was bracing himself as Eliot got ready to let loose another round of 'I told you so.' Eliot wasn't laughing any more, he was grabbing a magazine off the table and voice was quiet, like he didn't want everyone in the kitchen to hear.

"Seriously. When you've got the bad guys chasing after you? Don't lead them into a dead end. You've got to know where your exits are. Got that?"

"Yeah," Alec nodded, and pressed the ice pack back up to his face.


Eliot wasn't around, this time, to joke about the bruises or the bloody nose. Instead, Alec was manhandled into the infirmary while the three guys who he'd managed to goad into jumping him were taken down into isolation.

"Can you hear me?" The nurse, who looked overworked and tired- there was no doctor in sight- was asking, holding out the hearing aid that one of the guards had grabbed off the dirt, and was looking at it skeptically. It only took Alec a moment to figure out why. It had cracked open along the seal, and the earbud he'd hidden was rattling in the casing.

Alec held his breath as he reached out for it with the hand that wasn't holding the towel to his face. Any second now, he was going to be found out and no, he didn't need Eliot there to tell him how stupid his plan had been.

"I'm sorry, I don't know much about these," the nurse enunciated carefully, giving up on his scrutiny and handing it over. "Is it broken?"

Alec shrugged and pressed the casing back together, pressing it into his ear, fidgeting with it to cover his relief. He shook his head slowly and asked for a piece of tape.

"In a minute," the nurse said. "Let me take a look at your hand, okay?"

Reluctantly, Alec let him, but even raising his arm made his hand throb painfully. A few minutes, and too many questions and far too much stinging later, the nurse set the supplies aside and regarded the damage. "Your nose stop bleeding yet?" Alec rocked his head forward experimentally, pleased when it didn't resume. "Okay, well. Looks like you've got a torn ligament here. We're going to need to ice it. Once the swelling's gone down, I'm going to fit you with a brace, mostly to keep you from using it."

The nurse nodded to the guard as he unlocked the key to the office, emerging a moment later with an envelope of Tylenol.

"This should take the edge off a bit, but it's not the good stuff, in case you were hoping."

Alec grinned, shaking his head, and held out his left hand for the pills.

"Okay, well. Looks like it's about mealtime for this wing," the nurse looked up at the clock as the announcement was made, "So I'm going to cut you loose for now. Report in with a guard when you're done. Your new cell's going to be just around the corner."

"But it's just a thumb," Alec pretended to protest.

"One, I can't go chasing you all over the place to drop off ice packs all afternoon, and two, those guys that jumped you outside? They've been here for a few months already. And it's not like we've got a ton of gang activity in here- there's too much turnover for that- but I know they've got friends. On the plus side, you're off the hook for breaking rocks."


A quarter of an hour later, the information had started to filter through, cell to cell to cell, and finally made it to Eliot's ears. There'd been a fight out in Tent City. Some low-level gang bangers awaiting trial had stomped one of the new inmates. Nobody on the block recognized the guy.

"But it ain't like anyone's probably recognizing him now," Trent smirked as he passed the word along to King, in the next cell over.

There was a chance that this game of inmate telephone had gotten the details wrong, getting gorier and gorier with each pass. The estimate he was hearing, the amount of blood that had spurted out of the stab wound was so insane- three gallons was about twice what an average body could even hold, but the fact that it was being discussed at all was bad enough.

He thrust his hands in his pockets when he realized they were shaking.

Eliot's guts churned, and maybe it was instinct kicking in, maybe it was the sudden realization of how fucking powerless he was, shut in here, but his hands grasped the bars, tugging uselessly in frustration. He could fool himself all he wanted, but that wasn't going to get those bars open. He refused to believe that it was really Nate's voice he was hearing in his head, asking him why he hadn't had Hardison's back.

Ten minutes later, the guards were back on the block, and the cells were opened again, and they all filtered out like nothing had ever happened. The checkers game that had been going on down the way resumed, and half a dozen guys retook their seats in front of the television.

By the time the announcement came that it was time to eat, they'd all forgotten about it entirely.


Eliot was the first one in line, heading towards the mess, though he walked slowly as they passed the infirmary, hoping that his luck hadn't gotten so bad that he couldn't get a glimpse inside.

The door remained secure as he passed, and on the other side?

Fuck, Hardison could've bled out on the table already. One room, just fifty feet away, he could've been lying there, eyes open and seeing nothing. Going cold.

Instinct's a funny thing, he realized, too aware of his movements- and the real reasons for them- as he grabbed a tray from the stack and followed Donovan down the line. He'd eat, because he had to, he needed something to do while he staked out the infirmary door, just visible across the hall.

Everything else was just background- the noise, the food, Donovan's rambling.

Salvo was posted at the mess hall door while McTeague and a guard named Miller circulating between the tables. The infirmary wasn't guarded on the outside, and if Eliot timed it right, while the two patrolling guards were over on the other side of the mess, he could take out Salvo. He'd be destroying any chances of future deals with him, but he could do it.

Grabbing Salvo's key card, then, and ten feet across the hall. Another three or four seconds to get through the door. After that, he'd wing it.

Donovan hesitated, obviously waiting for him before heading off to a table, so Eliot led him towards the back of the room- it meant there was more ground to cover, but it also meant that he'd keep the infirmary in his sights.

The last of the inmates filtered into the mess hall, and over their heads, he could see the infirmary door swinging open.

Trent was in the way, not fucking moving, blocking out anything else until the line began to move again.

From behind him, Hardison stepped into the room, and Eliot caught himself sighing in relief before focusing for inventory.

His right hand looked injured, it was clear in the odd angle of his thumb as he pressed an ice pack to the side of his face. There was no blood seeping through the bandage on his arm, though, and he was walking in here under his own steam. The limp was barely noticeable, probably not even on his radar.

And there was something stuck to his ear that didn't make sense, and it took Eliot a moment to realize what it was. A hearing aid? Seriously?


"Hey, man. I been working my ass off up in here, getting all this gear together so ya'll don't wind up getting your asses killed," Hardison complained, snatching the earpiece out of Eliot's grasp.

"It'll never work, the thing's fucking huge, man." Nate walked past, glancing dubiously at the mess Hardison had made on his coffee table. "Anyone'll see it from a mile off."

"They're supposed to, and no, I'm not saying it's for everyday use, the thing is damned uncomfortable. It's just another version of the cords and the fake Bluetooth setups y'all already got."

"Which are working just fine," Eliot pointed out. Hardison needed to get a life.

"You're damned right they do-"

"But if we've all got the same one, it's going to stand out just as much."

Hardison blinked at him, his jaw clicking shut.

"Shut up, man."


Upon his release from the infirmary, Alec noted that the cafeteria was directly across the hall, already filling up. He waited for the line of inmates to pass, an army of black and white stripes and bored faces, before stepping inside, the ice pack held loosely in his fist.

It took less than a moment to spot Eliot, all he'd had to do was look for the best vantage point with the clearest escape route, and he'd found him at the edge of a long table towards the back. Donovan was sitting next to him. After going through the chow line, he sat down, facing Eliot, one table away.

It wasn't too hard. Alec spent more time than was actually needed looking out the window, turning so Eliot could see the hearing aid sticking out of his ear. When he glanced over, though, Eliot was staring at the ice pack.

Sitting on the far right of the rightmost table, with his back to most of the rest of the room, meant that the only eyes he really had to worry about were Donovan's.

And he'd listened to Sophie, regardless of what she'd thought.


Sophie sipped her tea, waiting in the van to keep warm before making her entrance. as they watched Parker move through the crowded night club, circling through the lieutenants as she made her way towards their mark.

"Got the third one, where's Connor?" Parker said.

"He's just leaving the office," Nate said, from halfway across town. "Just, ah. Mingle. Until he gets there."

"If you're trying to mask a movement," Sophie said, when she noticed Alec's frown- Parker had just barely brushed against a guy, hadn't even slowed down, and yeah, Alec didn't know how she'd done it. "The best way is to hide it with another, more obvious one, that's why it's called the 'bump and lift.' But most of the time, there's actually very little that needs to be hidden from view. As long as you're not obviously concentrating on the move you're making, they're not going to, either."

"So, like, if I was sitting in the middle of Central Park, setting the timer on a bomb, nobody would-"

"I imagine if you were planting a bomb in such a public place, you'd take measures to assure it wasn't detected. House it in a radio, or something of the sort, am I correct?"

"Well-" Alec grinned, catching on.

"So yes. People might think you were changing the batteries, or trying to work out some minor technical difficulty, but yes. You could pull it off."

"I'm sorry. You said Hardison could pull it off?" Eliot snorted, and Alec glanced to the main entrance feed to see him stepping back from the line to let two more into the club as a couple stepped outside behind him. Whether he'd broken character to make a point, Alec couldn't tell, but he was already flirting with the redhead that was waiting her turn.

"Don't see what the big deal is," Parker pointed out. "I took out a garage with an Easy Bake oven when I was seven."


He ate- man, it was horrible, but he ate, and, when the conversation at two tables over began to get boisterous, he figured anyone else's attention would be drawn there.

Taking the hearing aid out, peeling back the tape and prying open the casing with his thumb. He pretended to fiddle with the casing, checking for damage as the earbud fell out into his palm. A moment's examination proved that both earbuds were fine, and he was closing the hearing aid up again when there was movement over at Eliot's table. They were getting up, along with everyone else.

The fact that the announcement startled him made it easier to pull off, so too did his injured hand. It was the closest thing to a signal he could manage, but it would have to do.

Piling everything back onto the tray as he stood, he managed to upend it just enough to send the cutlery and the cup clattering to the ground.

Setting the tray aside on the table as he stooped to pick everything up, he nearly dropped the cup again as a striped arm came into his field of vision, just because it was Eliot. He was there, he'd gotten the message, and he'd come through.

Just like Alec had known he would.

Apparently, he trusted Eliot more than he'd thought.

Now ain't the time.

"Earbud, tray," he muttered, looking up in time to see Eliot's concerned glance bouncing off of him as fought a smirk.


Eliot was moving off by the time Alec managed to get to his feet again, but it was fine. When he picked up the tray, there was a fork sitting where the earbud had been.


"Auto-initiate Delta," Alec muttered, once he'd been shown to his cell- right next to the infirmary, the last cell on the block- and after too many seconds, he heard the faint crackle that told him that out in the main office, his phone had turned itself on, and comms were on line and signal boosted.

It was only a few seconds more before he heard Nate's voice, loud and irate and hoarse all at once.

"Hardison? You mind telling us all what the hell you are doing?"

"Okay," Alec glanced out to make sure no one was listening, and realized again how badly he'd prepared. "Chill. We're fine. Eliot?"

There was a noise on the line- Eliot humming, slightly distorted. If he was back in his cell, he probably wouldn't be able to talk.

"Okay, look. Eliot? Watch out."

That got a confused grunt from Eliot and an exasperated sigh from Sophie.


"Okay, look." He could calm them down later. "Donovan, Eliot's cellmate, is a hitter for Moreau. Had himself arrested deliberately to get in with close. I didn't have a better way to get word through after I found out, and didn't know if it would keep until Tara got here…" Hardison trailed off for a moment. "Eliot, cough if you got that."


Eliot's relief at seeing Hardison alive and well- and that he'd had some sort of plan- had faded by the time he'd picked up the earbud. Right now, it was everything he could do to keep quiet as he climbed up into his bunk.

He coughed, once, and thought about punching Hardison in the face.

"Okay, man. Once for yes, twice for no. Has he shown his hand yet? You okay in there?"

Eliot coughed again.

There was a pause before Nate spoke. "How did you know all this?"

"He turned himself in on a wonky case, and when I checked him out, only thing I could find was that he'd been born-and died, at Bethesda General in DC. Check my laptop, it's all there."

Eliot wanted to point out that he could take Donovan, that this wasn't his first rodeo, and he really wanted to tear Hardison a new one, but there were a few things stopping him. First, he couldn't afford to be overheard. Donovan was getting settled in the bunk below, and the block was winding down for the evening.


He was just starting to realize how well he'd been played. Yeah, he could take Donovan in a fight, easily enough, but…he hadn't been expecting one.

And Eliot knew about timing. About waiting, about letting the target get comfortable enough to get in close. He knew how to pick his moment. Donovan hadn't struck yet, but it didn't mean he wasn't going to.

He wanted to tell himself that it didn't make any sense, but every argument he formed was too easily fought down as he thought back.

So far, Donovan had done everything Eliot would've, were he in Donovan's shoes. Hadn't pressed about Hardison in the yard, and he'd even hung back when Eliot helped clear up the tray, watching for anything there'd been to learn.

Donovan had gotten into a fight, finessed the situation so that he'd be put in Eliot's cell. Smart.

Donovan had gotten arrested on faked charges, yes, but Hardison had done the same. It obviously wasn't impossible. And Hardison wasn't the type to get his ass locked up on a mere hunch.

Worse? That Hardison had needed to. Because Eliot let his guard down.

But possibly even worse? How little Eliot cared about all that, just because he could hear that Nate was already spinning out another backup plan, and that Parker sounded jealous that they hadn't waited for her. Just because he could hear Hardison's fucking voice.

He wasn't sure he could've spoken if he'd had the option.


The shadows of the bars played against the far wall as Eliot lay awake, listening to Donovan sleep. He was quiet.

The rest of the crew had gone off comms when the lights had gone out, but he could still hear Hardison's breathing on the line- he'd faded into sleep a few hours ago.

It wasn't a good thing. It was just familiar enough that Eliot had to fight to keep his eyes open, just distracting enough, listening to him being quiet, that he kept having to remind himself that there were other things, much closer things, sleeping in the bunk below, that needed his full attention.

But he kept his earpiece in.




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