What Else Would You Have Me Be?
Chapter 10

The isolation cell was four strides by three, and not at all conducive to pacing, though Eliot tried anyhow. This was the worst part, the waiting. 

"Eliot, talk to me, man," Hardison's voice came online again. "You okay?"

"I'm fine," he said, habit now, but he'd be a lot better when this isolation stint was behind him. He wanted to take out the earpiece, toss it in the darkest corner, but it this went south, he wouldn't be able to come back to retrieve it.

"Hang on," he muttered, stopping mid-stride to listen. The creak of a door down the hall, then footsteps. Any minute now, he'd be released back up onto the block.

He flexed his fingers as the guards drew near. Miller again, and McTeague Good. They were close enough now that he could hear the faint rattling of keys, and finally, they were opening his door.

"Hey Gremminger. Time to go back up top," Miller called, his tone bored. He had no idea at all what he was about to walk into.

"Sounds good, boss," he lied. As the door opened, Eliot attacked.


This isn't anything new.

These sounds had come across on the line while he watched from the van, or from across the room, as Eliot took on yet another security team, hired goon, Mossad hitter or Ukrainian assassin. The few times where he hadn't had visual, he'd been busy hacking security, reading through financials as fast as he could. But he didn't have those distractions, not now.

You've seen this before.

There were no cameras, no feed, no visual, and even if there had been, Nate had set the computer on the table by the door, depressingly out of reach. There was no way to know exactly what was going on, he could only make guesses based on the small amounts of data coming through the comms, just a whole lot of imagination filling in the blanks. A sharp intake of breath, a thudding like impact that probably meant Eliot had taken a hit to the head. A noise that could've been a grunt or a whine and a dragging sound that didn't translate at all.

He can take care of himself.

There was a relieved moment when he heard Eliot's muttered "c'mon," only lasting long enough for Alec's brain to catch on to the nuances of the wheezing breath that came before, or the too-sharp inhalation that followed immediately afterwards. Alec squeezed his eyes shut, blocking out the dim light coming in through the hall, the small digital readouts scattered over the hospital equipment, trying to concentrate. Even so, it took him a moment to realize that he wasn't hearing anything more.

Eliot had gone down.

Just like they'd planned.


"I don't get it, man," he said, glaring as Nate tossed him an icepack. He caught it with a little more vigor than was needed, maybe, if the pain in his side was anything to judge by, but the irritation was coming through. "You needed someone to lose a fight in order to convince them we were small-time, I get that, but I was in position, and Sophie-"

"No," Eliot interrupted, shaking his head as he pulled up his sleeve to check a scrape on his own arm. "I got a few bruises. You would've gotten killed."

"So what, you're saying that I can't lose a fight?" He brandished the icepack for evidence before holding it to the back of his head. "You have a change of heart sometime in the past three weeks you forgot to tell me about?"

"I appreciate that, Hardison," Nate sat down on the couch, drink in hand. "But Eliot's instincts are better than yours, and Sophie was most at risk."

"Which is why you should've sent him, not me."

Eliot actually grinned for a moment, but Nate shook his head "You're looking at this all wrong, Hardison. Sending you after Sophie, your instincts kicked in, and you were able to get her out of there. If you'd gone against Eliot's guys, you would've fought harder, and you might have won a fight that needed to be lost."

"I don't know, man. My instincts in other areas might be great, but-"

"If you're going to throw a fight, you need to know how to win it, first. You need to be able to get around instinct, plan for the hits that they're going to get in, and know when to go down. You can't do that if you're panicking."

"Panicking? Whoa, man. I did not panic, I'm merely-"

But nobody was listening. The girls were coming through the door with the takeout, and as Sophie set the bags out on the living room table, she squeezed his shoulder as she smiled.

"Thank you, Hardison."

She'd changed out of her dirty clothes, they'd pulled the job off, and he'd totally rescued the damsel in distress. It was all good.


Eliot hung on the edges of the adrenaline crash while listening to McTeague and Miller talk. The deliberation had been going on for a few minutes, but eventually, Miller made the call. "Leave him," he told McTeague. "If he's still unconscious in an hour or so, we'll get the doc in."

"Fucking lunatic," McTeague muttered, but then they were gone, the lights were shut off, and Eliot was alone again. For a few minutes, he just breathed, prodding at his ribs.


Mostly alone. The earpiece was still in, and Hardison's voice was sending sharp spikes into Eliot's brain.

"I'm here," he winced, blinking a few times to make sure his eyes were actually open, but the lights were off, there was nothing to see. And there wasn't really any reason to stand up right now, anyway.

"All pieces present and accounted for?"

"Yeah." His head hurt, he was going to have a goose egg on the back of his skull, and his ribs ached from the kicks he'd taken once he'd gone down, but it wasn't anything he couldn't handle.

"All right. I'm gonna call Nate, get everyone back on comms. They're probably worried."

"Tell them I'm fine, but. Leave 'em off for now." Eliot really didn't want to listen to Sophie and Nate going ten more rounds over the idiocy of this plan. "I'll talk to them in the morning. Kinda tired, here."

"Oh," Hardison sounded a bit disappointed, but passed the message along when filling Nate in. After hanging up, though, he spoke to Eliot again. "Want me to go off, too, give you a break?"

He was sitting in a dark room, tired, cold, and sore. He'd made the right play, threatening to take out his own earpiece and risk having it lost in the fight unless the others promised to go offline. Nate would've been pressing for updates that Eliot couldn't have given, and, well. He'd protected the team from worse. Hardison had been the compromise. "If it all goes to hell in there, we gotta know about it," he'd said, and then he'd volunteered to listen in.

Eliot hadn't been enthusiastic about the idea, he'd barely managed to bite back some comment about Hardison listening in to get his rocks off, but now that it was said and done, Eliot wasn't minding so much.

"Eh, it's not like I have much else to distract me."

"Yeah, well." There was a pause, and Eliot thought that maybe Hardison was going to say something else, started reconsidering his decision if it meant that he would have to be the one to do the talking. But when he spoke again, Hardison was talking to Nate.

These were the bone conduction earpieces, not the atmospheric earpieces that they used when the team needed to hear what the mark was saying, so Eliot only caught Hardison's side as he assured Nate that everything was fine. A few less than illuminating "uh-huhs" and "yeahs" filled in the rest of it.

"So where are we at?" he asked, once Hardison signed off.

"Parker's been busy. She's already got about a days worth of specials and documentaries. Sophie and Nate are making some to mix in that's a bit more directly suited to the purpose, and unless the doctor gives the go ahead, they'll probably be editing it all themselves."

Neither of them really seemed like they'd been presidents of the AV club. "Seriously?"

"Doc says that he doesn't want me sitting up much, and I can hold out for a while, but. Yeah. Might just have to talk them through it." Hardison yawned. "So you know that's gonna be a bucket of suck."

"Sounds like it could take a while." Eliot stretched his arms experimentally, groaned when the shoulder he hadn't realized he'd pulled creaked, sending shockwaves up the back of his neck and making his head throb thickly.

"Seriously," Hardison spoke quietly, as if he didn't want his concern overheard, and wasn't sure it would be welcome. "Are you okay?"

"Just tired."

"Not holding out on us, hiding any stab wounds? You still have both legs, right?"

"I'm fine," Eliot grumbled, suppressing a smile as he began to rethink this entire conversation. "How's your stab wound doing?"

"No idea at all, man. But I think the walls are waving at me, so I'm not sure I'm the one to ask."


It was so easy, Alec almost felt bad for the sheriff's department. All he'd needed to get started was the roster and the duty log. From there, he was able to get the names of every deputy who had been at Arlington's ranch, and every guard at the jail.

He had their names, and set up monitoring on their email addresses. A few of the younger ones were on facebook, hacking their accounts was cake, and once he had their passwords, Sophie took over, scanning for information and subtext, analyzing every online relationship and taking what looked like meticulous notes on a yellow legal pad.

Alec, however, was entering information directly into JARVIS. As soon as there was someone Eliot needed to know about, they'd be able to pull up their record in a heartbeat.

Parker had been in and out for a few days, now, breaking into one house and apartment after another. "They're law enforcement. You'd think they'd be better about personal security," she complained, sitting down next to Sophie to report in on what she'd found in Miller's garbage. "But the bugs are planted."

Through all of this, Nate was bouncing between the church and the jail, talking with his flock and feeding everything he learned back to Hardison.

"You need me at the church for the rummage sale tonight?" Sophie asked, looking at her watch. Visiting hours were nearly over, and they'd need to get all this cleared up before the nurses returned.

"No," Nate replied over comms. "I think we've got enough to get started. I'll send Tara back to the TV station. Eliot?"

"He signed off a few hours ago," Alec smirked. "Said listening to all of us was driving him crazy."

"Well, at least it ought to help him sell the part."


It was Tuesday morning when McTeague and Miller came back, keeping their distance as they regarded Eliot from the doorway.

"Okay, Gremminger. Two choices. Act up, and you can stay down here for another week. Behave, and you can go back up to your cell. What's it going to be?"

Eliot rocked his head back against the wall, keeping his eyes distant, pretending that he barely knew that they were there. When Miller shifted uneasily, Eliot began to focus, coming back to himself. He stood, holding his hands out in a placating gesture before offering his wrists for the cuffs. "No more problems, boss."


Channel seven had aired two canned specials back-to back last night, and now, the jail's airing of Judge Judy was being bumped in favor of the first of Nate's edited programs.

Half-watching from his bed, Alec dozed as Sophie's voice narrated the segue between the original case study- Frank Sagan, a man who'd survived a plane crash in Death Valley before hiking back to civilization- and the one that Nate had orchestrated.

"Cases such as Sagan's are rare," Sophie narrated as the scene cut to a busy parking lot, "but are by no means restricted to the outlands of human civilization. In 2003, a man in Lansing, Michigan was attacked one evening on his way home. James Dupree was violently mugged, and though medical rescue was nearly immediate, he sustained head injuries similar to Sagan's." Another cut, now, to the emergency room footage that Parker had gotten, so chaotically shot that recognition of Alec's own doctor was nearly impossible.

"Dupree was unconscious for no more than ten minutes, but soon after he awoke, strange sensations began to manifest themselves."

Nate's disguised face came on the screen next, talking to someone off camera. "The first few times it happened, everyone thought it was because I was on all these painkillers, that I'd just overheard them when I was in between wakefulness and sleep. It wasn't until a few days later, when I was back home, talking with my daughter, that I began to suspect it was something more…"

And they were off. Right now, the inmates in the television room at the jail were sitting at their tables, watching Nate spin the tale of the psychic powers he'd obtained, Eliot was setting foot back on the block, and Alec was falling again into drugged, exhausted sleep.


Eliot started small. Asking Trent how his aunt's arthritis was doing, asking Stanley if he'd seen the latest odds on the game that he'd bet three hundred dollars on. The information was the easy part- all being fed to him by Nate, sometimes Hardison. Sophie talked him through the delivery, and more importantly, through the blowoffs that had to follow each one.

Because going up to cons and starting conversations about their mothers? Not exactly smiled upon.

Over the next few days, some freaked, and he wound up being punched more than once. Others spooked, even leaving the mess table to get some distance between him. Some looked at him like he was crazy.

People began to avoid him, but it actually made his job easier if he didn't have to do it all the time. And what was important was that they were all talking about him. He didn't need to actually read any minds if everyone was beginning to believe that he could. The pirated television was helping, too- more and more people, drawn by the gossip, left their card games and arguments to stare up at the screen when the next program came on. Eliot stayed in his bunk when it aired. The block was nearly empty.

The most tiring part of this job was the distant, spaced out expression he'd had to maintain when anyone else was around. But he had to admit, even after a week, it was a pretty good setup, remarkably self-sustaining compared to some of the other cons they'd worked, and relatively safe. Nobody was going to go to the brass with reports of "psychic abilities" without being laughed out of the room, but they were hanging on every word he said.

Even the guards were starting to catch on, though nothing was solidified, yet. Not until Tara showed up.


He really would've liked to see the expressions on the guards' faces when she burst out of the visiting area. From what he'd seen of the one- Sanderson, who didn't yet know that his wife was thinking about leaving him- it was going to be pretty impressive.

"I want to speak with the warden," she said in a shocked, angry voice. It carried through the door as clearly as it did over the comms. "There's been a breach of security, there's been. I don't even know what this place is pulling right now, but-"

"Ma'am. What seems to be the issue here?"

"The issue is that apparently, the inmates of this facility have access to information that nobody here should know about, which leads me to believe that either someone is feeding my client information about matters we've never discussed, he's got access to an internet connection and is very adept with it, or the man's suddenly gone and developed psychic powers. I would like to know exactly which of these is the truth."

"I don't know what to tell you, ma'am."

"Then let me speak with someone who does, or I'll have this entire facility closed down and open up investigations into each and every staff member."

"I'll take you to the warden," the guard sounded intimidated, and their voices carried off down the hallway as Tara's rant continued in his ear.

Give her five minutes with the warden and they'd have another half dozen believers on their hands. No problem.


Four days into this game, and the cracks were starting to show. The information stockpiles were getting low, and as the rumors had spread throughout the jail, Eliot had found himself being sought out by the curious, bored, and desperate. He only had so much to work with, and now and again had to go off Sophie's best guesses at what they needed to hear.

But over the past two days, they'd started honing in on their audience.

Now that Eliot was back in genpop, he was allowed the same privileges as everyone else. Tara could visit, now, and he was able to attend the Bibles and Bars Revue sessions that Sophie hadn't stopped leading. He could've spoken to her, afterwards, had there been any real point to it, but since they were on comms and Eliot didn't need to admit just how much he liked looking at familiar faces, he'd merely returned to his cell.

A few others, as it turned out, had been waiting for him to leave before approaching her.

"McTeague walked me out," Sophie reported on comms, later that evening. "He also attends our church, brings his mother every weekend."

Eliot wasn't surprised. As far as the guards in here went, McTeague was one of the more decent ones. "You think he's our guy?"

"I don't believe he had anything to do with hurting Hardison," she said. "But he's on the list, remember? He applied for a patrol position two months ago, and as soon as there is an opening, he'll be transferred. In the meantime, though, he's been socializing with his coworkers in the department at large."

"He was at Arlington's," Nate explained. "The night of the murder."

"Yes. But I've got some bad news. As he walked me out to my car, I asked about the fight in the yard, what the reaction inside the jail had been like. A little concern for the welfare of all the lost souls inside, and curiosity regarding the people involved, and he was telling me that Donovan had been released already. Sunday afternoon."

"Damn it, Hardison," Eliot groaned. He hadn't seen him around on the block and had guessed- wrongly, as it turned out- that Donovan had been in one of the infirmary cells.

Nate sounded more diplomatic. "Why are we just hearing about this now?"

"Sorry, guys. You can't blame me for the data that hasn't been entered into the system. Release forms get entered manually, in batches. I'm guessing they just haven't gotten to it yet."

"So where is he now?"

Hardison sighed. "I'm on it."

Eliot sighed. "In the meantime, I'm going to need more info if I’m going to keep this up."

"Yeah, yeah," Hardison muttered, irritably. "You all do realize that I was just stabbed, right?"

"Parker, I need you to hit McTeague's place. I'll check the database, see who else we need info on and we'll go from there. Hardison? Stay on Donovan for the time being."



Eliot wasn't surprised, an hour later, when Hardison reported that Donovan had gone off the grid. He had no idea if he was three blocks or ten thousand miles away.

"On the plus side, at least you don't have to worry about him killing you in the mess line," Hardison offered, but Eliot figured he was missing the point.

Ain't me I'm worried about, Eliot thought, knocking his knuckles against the wall, mostly to stop himself from punching it. The psychic routine- and the reactions it got- had been going to his head. He'd forgotten where he was, what they were up against.

Donovan was circling the team, Eliot was certain of it. And in here, he couldn't do anything to stop him coming.


Hospital release forms were a pain in the ass, but when combined with the county jail release forms that had been tagged on upon his admission, it was late morning before Alec set foot outside the hospital.

He'd have to come back for another post-op check in a week, and he returned to his hotel room to find that the others had been using it as a staging area for the past ten days, though they'd clearly been preparing for his return. The fridge was stocked with orange soda, there was a lap-desk on the bed that would allow him to work on the computer when he was lying down, and more importantly, there were jeans in the dresser. Real shoes. And his shaving kit was sitting by the sink.

"Let me know when you want to grab lunch, and I'll have the girls meet us," Nate said, leaving him to it and closing the door behind him. One shower and shave later, Alec Hardison supposed he could count himself among the living again. He was just putting his earpiece in again- habit, now- when his phone rang.

"Hey, what's up?"

"It's Parker," Sophie gasped. "She's hurt."


All around him, the mess hall was filling with people, so Eliot couldn't speak. If anyone looked him in the eye right now, he knew he'd do something stupid, so Eliot glared at his lunch tray instead. Scratched plastic, pale blue, rough at the edges. Plastic dishes and cutlery. He couldn't bring himself to look at the spaghetti on his plate. His head just wasn't in the right place for it, not when, on the line, everything was going to hell.

Another minute or so, and he'd probably bite his tongue in half.

"Parker, come in," Nate was repeating himself, but getting no response.

"She's not-" Alec listened for a moment, just to be sure. "Is she on comms?"

Sophie's voice was watery and shocked, all at once. "I think she must've lost it in the fall."

"The fall? What was she climbing?"

"McTeague's condo downtown. From the roof down to the seventeenth floor. I don't understand it. One minute, everything's fine, and-"

"I'm on my way. Sophie, stay where you are and talk me through it."

"I'd distracted the guards long enough for her to get up onto the roof, then went outside to wait in the park across the street while began to come down the side of the building in her window-washing rig. I glanced up once, and everything was fine, but I looked away so nobody would start wondering what I was staring at. In the reflection of the windows across the street a few moments later, I saw her line, waving as it fell. It took me a few minutes to get over here, and-"


"I can see it, Nate. There's a balcony in the way, but it looks like she landed on the fifth or sixth floor. I don't know, and the police area already here. I called 911-"

"I'll get on, see what they're saying. What's the address? Do we know if they've got digital surveillance?"

"I don't know," Sophie repeated, dangerously close to tears. "What should I do?"

"Hang tight, Sophie," Nate said. "I'll be there in a minute."


Alec ignored the ache in his side, the stitches that were probably dangerously close to popping out. Sophie hadn't been the only one to call in the fallen window-washer at 44 Monroe, and ambulances were already on their way. Police had gone into the building, but so far, nobody had reported anything.

Because she's hiding out. She's fine, she made it into McTeague's place and just dropped the line when she unhooked herself. That's all.

It took too long to get into the security system and pull up the cameras, and so far, he'd found her going up to the roof in the elevator, getting off at the top floor. The stairwell cameras showed nothing, though the camera pointing towards the roof access door was jostled out of place.

Alec scrolled forward, looking for further movement. Parker didn't seem to have passed across the cameras on the seventeenth or fourth floors.

It's a good thing, he tried to convince himself. She's in his condo, she's okay.

He spent ten minutes of searching, scrabbling, looking for any bit of information while Nate and Sophie went through their own panicked hells on the line. He began going through the footage from all the other floors, and again, there was nothing.

After twenty minutes, he was out of ideas. He'd never felt so sickly useless in his entire life.

"Fuckin' useless… I hate this," he muttered to himself, nearly jumping when Eliot's voice suddenly responded.

"I know the feeling."


"El, you- you hear all this?" Hardison sounded surprised, and from what Eliot could tell, Nate and Sophie, too, had forgotten that he was on the line.

"Been here the entire time," he grit through his teeth as he sat down on his bed. In the corridor, Miller glanced at him warily as he passed, but didn't ask who he was talking to. Insanity had its perks. "Couldn’t talk until now." Now that he could, though, he was suddenly out of things to say. Parker was down, and nobody knew anything, and there wasn't anything he could do or say to change it.

"She's hiding out somewhere, waiting for all the commotion to die down." Hardison was trying to convince himself. The least Eliot could do was help.

"She knows what she's doing," he stated, not bringing up the fact that she hadn't made contact, the thousand possible things that could mean. "She's going to be fine."

He had no idea if Hardison was even listening.

Come on, Parker. Please. Don't make me a liar.




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