What Else Would You Have Me Be?

Chapter 13

Eliot was driving five miles over the speed limit and aiming for six. Hardison had comms back up and running before Eliot had gone two blocks in the direction Nate had pointed, but wasn't going to make a bit of difference. They'd already crossed two intersections and were coming up on a third, and the only thing going for them was the hope that Donovan was more interested in gaining speed and distance.

Though it wasn't like they were close enough behind him that he couldn't have afforded to slow down to make a turn.

This was a complete waste of time, but Eliot edged the van up to make the next light.

He managed not to say it out loud, though. Maybe the others already knew, maybe he just didn't want to be the one to tell them. This chase wasn't going to get them anywhere. That's not how this kind of thing played out.

Back at the hotel, Parker was trying to get Nate calmed down enough to repeat what had happened.

"He was waiting for us, I saw that his car was on, but the lights were pointing out and I couldn't see him. Tara had just dropped Parker off, and. I just. Didn't think anything of it, really, until. I was leaning into the back seat to grab the phone charger; it had fallen between the seats. Sophie was getting out and when I looked up, Larson was getting out of his car, already had a beam on her."

"And he forced her into the car?" Parker prompted. "Front seat, back or trunk?"

"He pointed the gun at me, tossed some zip cuffs at her feet, and told her to put them on. She didn't want to- well, obviously, but I told her that if she didn't, he'd just shoot her next. He made her open the passenger side door and get in, and then they were gone. Fuck, it didn't take more than a minute." Nate took a breath, then another. He was trying to steady his nerves. "Hardison, tell me you've got something."

"Running the license plate, came up easy. Car's stolen. I'm trying to tap into the street cameras, see if I can find him, but it's a long shot."

"Any ideas where he'd take her?" Eliot winced as the light turned yellow, too far ahead. Somewhere ahead of them, or maybe already behind them, Larson and Sophie were gaining even more ground.

"No," Nate said, after a moment. "You?"

Eliot could feel Hardison's eyes on him again, surprisingly heavy.


The light turned green. Eliot accelerated.


They'd gone nine miles east, were already in Tempe, by the time Nate gave up.

"This isn't going to work," he admitted. "Get back here."

The defeat in his tone bled through the comms, and there wasn't anything more to be said, anyhow. Instead of making a u-turn, though, or making right turns to go back around the block to get them heading back west, Eliot changed lanes to wait for the left turn arrow.

"What're you doing?"

"Widening the swath," Eliot muttered. "Maybe we'll luck out."

A mile north, they turned west again. Their route was nothing more than a small chance within a small chance, but Eliot's knuckles were white on the wheel and it didn't look like he needed Alec to point it out.
Instead, he swung his head around at every intersection, searched up every street and glanced at every car they passed.

He mostly just hoped.


It wasn't until they were back at the hotel parking lot that Hardison, still glaring at the screen on his open laptop as they entered the stairwell, finally said whatever he'd been sitting on the entire drive back.

"So. How's this going to play out?"

Eliot sighed, going into the pocket for his keys before changing his trajectory and heading towards Nate's room instead. He didn't want to have to go over all of this twice. "Depends on a lot of things."


Parker swung the door open when they were still fifteen feet from it, her eyes wide, worried, and clearly trying to warn them. It wasn't hard to guess why.

Nate was standing by the dresser, pouring himself a drink and not looking at any of them. When Eliot quirked a brow at Parker, she flashed four fingers.

They really didn't need Nate drunk on top of all this. But it was usually Sophie who kept him in line.

He waited until Nate finally crossed back to the windows to move in and pour himself a drink. He didn't want it, not really, but it gave him the excuse to position himself between Nate and the bottle if the need arose.

Hardison was plugging his computer in, and getting Nate's up and online as well, and Parker was leaning against the wall, arms crossed. Right now, nobody was looking at him, but that would change in a minute.

When it did, though, it felt wrong. It should've been Nate firing off directions, already having plans A through D already sorted out. It shouldn't have been Parker sounding so damned hopeless.

"What're we going to do?"

"We wait," Eliot muttered, warily approaching Nate. "He didn't shoot her. Means he needs her. She's still alive."

Nate, who'd aged ten years in half an hour, shook his head. "He attacked you, coordinated Hardison's stabbing with Miller, and sabotaged Parker's line." He sipped his drink and dropped the curtain back into place. He looked worn out, but his eyes were still a bit wild. "I'm not putting anything past him."

"Okay, man. I hear you. But odds are, he's gonna call, make his demands, and we'll finally have a hook into this entire scene. We're gonna need you lucid when that phone rings, okay?"


Parker had apparently figured out where this was going, and was over at the minibar brewing a pot of coffee when Eliot came back towards the couch. Hardison was bouncing between two computers, cursing to himself in frustration.

"What's your problem, man? We gotta be ready."

"I've got trace running on any incoming calls, and they're set to record directly to the system so I can clean up any background noise if we need to. I'm monitoring every cell tower within fifty miles in case he's not using a landline."

"That's good," Parker said, sitting on the table in front of them. "Isn't it?"

"Apart from the fact that I shouldn't have to be doin' any of this, yeah, it's good. What I can't find is Larson's destination."

"No shit," Eliot sighed, leaning over to look at the screen. "So what're you doing, anyhow?"

"I'm tapped into the city's street camera feeds, trying to trace his route from here. Nice sunny afternoon, they'd work great, but the sun was just going down and people were starting to turn their headlights on, which means that there's a lot of glare coming off every license plate on every car." Hardison winced, rolling his shoulders. His side had to be killing him by now. "It's just really slow going."

"And he'll probably change cars at some point, anyhow."

Eliot shot Parker a quick glare, but she wasn't wrong. Hardison missed it; he was still scowling at his screen. "You telling me I should stop looking?"

"No," Nate said, staring at his phone and willing it to ring.

A moment later, it did.


Alec patched into the call from his computer, turning up the volume so Parker and Eliot could hear.

"Hello? Who is this? Why are you doing this? She's done nothing to you."

"Of course not. This is just business," Larson said. "Don't waste my time with stupid questions. The question you should be asking is this. Who would want to see this happen to her?"

Already, the call had been traced to a phone number. Alec bit back a curse as he pointed at the screen so Eliot and Parker could see. It was a pay phone in Glendale. It would take over half an hour to get there if they left right now.

"Is she all right?"

"Sophie is fine, and she'll stay that way as long as you behave. Ten grand. Cash."

"Like you said, just business. You know who we are, then you know we can work something out between us."

"That's true. And I'm a dead man three days later. I'm not an idiot, Mr. Ford."

"I never said you were." Nate winced, like he knew how foolish that play had been and was expecting it to kick back in his face. "Ten grand. Fine. I don't exactly have that in my wallet right now, and you know that, so what's the time frame?"

"My employer will contact you tomorrow morning at ten with further instructions. In the meantime, I suggest availing yourself of the best thief in the world, since I hear she's back in the game. Normally, I'd remind you that going to the authorities would be problematic, but given the circumstances of your business here in town I hardly think that's necessary."

"Understood. We'll do whatever you want, just. I want proof of life."

"And you'll get it tomorrow morning," Larson said, and hung up the phone.


Nate was already heading for the door. "Did you get all that?"

"Yeah, but only because Larson let us," Hardison said. "He's at a gas station in Glendale. Knows we'd be tracking the call, and didn't even try to cut it short."

That brought Nate to a standstill in the middle of the room. He looked lost, as if not having expected to find himself there. He took a breath, pulled himself together.

"Eliot? Parker? You know the drill. We need ten grand, unmarked."

Parker was petting her gear bag like it was a horse that needed to be talked into leaving the stable, but Eliot was more vehement about his wariness. He stood up, startling Nate. "No, man. You go, back up Parker. I'll stay here with Hardison."


"All he wants is ten grand, Nate. It's a joke. Whatever this is, the money's less important than Larson's client getting his rocks off. He specifically mentioned sending Parker out to get the ransom, and we don't know that he's the only one on the payroll. There could be someone else."

Nate's frustration had been turning into anger, and it was beginning to boil over as he stepped up into Eliot's space. "Which is why I need you out there, backing her up and doing your goddamned job."

Eliot clenched his fists but didn't back down. They didn't need this shit right now. "Listen, man. If they know that Parker's doing a nighttime break-in, they'll probably expect that I'll be going out to back her up, like I always do. Which leaves you and Hardison hanging out here, in the open."

"You're saying we can't handle ourselves in a fight?" Hardison quipped wryly, and there were a thousand retorts just begging for release, but now wasn't the time to get sidetracked.

"Not like I can." Surprisingly, Nate seemed to be giving him the floor. "So far, we've all been fucked with. Me, Hardison, Parker, Sophie. If the pattern holds," he gestured at Nate, "then you're next. So we let them find me instead."

"And if they're actually going to go for Parker again? You said it yourself, with such a low ransom, they're setting up a trap, and they mentioned her by name. So you wanna tell me what happens then?"

Parker scoffed. "No offense, but I'm pretty good at the entire not getting caught by bad guys thing."

"And we still don't actually know that anyone is coming after any of us," Hardison added, reaching into his bag and pulling out a notebook, but Eliot was too busy staring Nate down to notice what he was doing. A moment later, he could see him handing the notebook to Parker.

"Passing notes, now?" Nate muttered. He'd seen it too. "What is this, high school?"

Rolling her eyes as she scrawled across the page, Parker tossed the notebook to Nate, who read it and passed it along.

Comms are secure, but I don't know that this room isn't bugged. You have a location in mind? I'll get started on their systems soon as you're on the road.

Underneath was Parker's reply.

Wells Fargo. West Washington, by city hall. Basic ADT systems upgraded with Hawkes T-390 sensors.

Nate was still scowling when Eliot looked up again, but he seemed ready to cede the point.

Two minutes later, he was following Parker out the door.


Once they were gone, Alec waited a minute before speaking.

"You really think someone's coming?"

"No," Eliot shook his head, then smirked, pulling his room key out of his pocket, as well as his earbud, though he didn't yet insert it. "But if Nate stayed here all night, he'd just wind up gettin' drunk, and we don't need that hassle. Where's the webcam?"

"In the van, but they're built into the laptops, too. Why?"

"Get Nate's up and running, patch a feed into yours. We're heading back to the other room."

Alec stood up, stretching. "You really do think someone's coming, don't you?"

"Always." Eliot smirked, nodding towards the door. "C'mon. Least in there, you can lie down while you're doin' your thing."

"I'm fine."

Eliot rolled his eyes, shaking his head. "You should listen to me. You need to give it a rest when you can."

"So sayeth the great Eliot Spencer?"

"I've been stabbed more often than you." To underscore his point, he raised the hem of his shirt, pointing at a jagged scar on the side of his abdomen. There were two others that Alec could barely make out, scattered across very nice abs.


Eliot pulled his shirt back into place with a shrug. "Or you could just stretch out in here." He'd already been derailed by Eliot's skin, and the mention of lying down wasn't doing him any favors. But Eliot was gesturing back at Nate's bed. "I'm sure Nate wouldn't mind."

That settled it. He aimed Nate's computer towards the door and set it to alert his own the moment anyone came inside, and then began gathering up his things. "Just grab me a cup of coffee first, would you?"

It wasn't until they were heading back into their room that he noticed Eliot had stolen the entire pot.


Eliot sat at the desk and tried to think, listening to Hardison talking Parker and Nate through the bank heist. It all seemed to be going smoothly. Mostly, he kept one eye on the door and one ear in the hallway.

But Parker and Nate were already on their way back, five minutes before the next guard patrol, reporting that it had gone off without a hitch. Alec set the timer on the alarms to go off in another ten, checked the camera footage once more to make sure he hadn't missed anything, and backed out of the system.

"We're clear," Hardison said, rearranging the pillows so he could stretch out comfortably. "This is getting too damned easy."

"The hell it is," Nate grumbled, but it wasn't surprising. He'd been bitching and moaning this entire time, and as much as Eliot would've liked to yank his earpiece out, he wasn't taking it off until they'd made it back to their room. "No sign of anyone back at the hotel?"

"No," Hardison said, checking his screen again.

"So then, this entire plan," Nate's tone was equal parts annoyed and amused, and Eliot knew where this was going. "Sending me out instead of Eliot was just a waste of-"

"Never hurts to be cautious," Hardison interrupted before Eliot even got the chance, then pulled out his earpiece, palming it for a moment. "Saved me from having him breathin' down my neck this whole time. Thanks, man."

Then the earpiece was in again- like it was nothing, no big deal, Eliot could stop preening now- and they were all listening to Parker giving the play by play, her voice happy and more relieved than she'd probably cop to.


The painkillers were nearly enough to knock Alec out cold, but it wasn't likely that Eliot was going to relax until everyone was present and accounted for, and the two cups of coffee he'd downed while waiting probably weren't doing him any favors, either. Maybe it was revenge for last night.

"You're still awake?"

"Yeah," Alec gave up and opened his eyes. "Wired, man. Thought it would've taken 'em longer to get done at the bank. Shouldn't have had that coffee."

Through the dark, Alec could see Eliot's hand twitching towards the earbud again. They'd both gone offline a while ago, after an hour spent listening to Nate getting drunk in his room, spinning dangerous plans and angrily worrying. They should've stolen the whiskey along with the coffee pot. Eliot must have remembered it, too, his hand dropping down and aborting the motion.

They'd both removed them about an hour after Nate and Parker had gotten back, when the vitriol and the anger was starting to boil over and turn into something they were going to have to talk about, knowing the words would only make things worse. "He's a mess, ain't he?"


"You think he's going to do something stupid?"

"Probably." Eliot rolled over onto his back. "I mean, it's Sophie. But I can't say I'm looking forward to it."

"I hear you." Sophie kept Nate from going off the edge, but she was also the person most likely to send him crashing over. Whatever Larson's employer wanted, this had to be part of it. "You think this is the main play?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well. You, me, Parker, now Sophie. Attack after attack on the family, you know?" He wasn't sure where he was going, and Eliot's lack of reply wasn't heartening. "I don't know. I'm stoned, here. Never mind."

Eliot was sitting up, though. "You might be onto something. Arlington was the objective, Miller was the distraction, but it's starting to feel like they were just the tools. Take them out of it, and what do we got?"

"Someone gunning for all of us?"

Eliot nod hurriedly, then filled in what Alec had missed. "If this is a money thing, well, Sophie's ransom would probably be a lot larger. I doubt the ten grand even covers what Larson's being paid. The money's not the point, and the heist wasn't a trap. Which means that the handoff will be. But it also means that the money's not the point, here, it's us.

"So who would be that angry? I mean, all the jobs we've pulled, it's got to be a long list, but this is, like Count of Monte Cristo levels of game."

Eliot snorted.

"What? I read."

"Not that." Without warning, Eliot turned on the bedside light. Pushing himself up, he grabbed Alec's computer, opened it up and stared at the login screen.

"Hey, man," Alec complained. "Walking wounded, here. I need my sleep."

"Like that was ever going to happen," Eliot shook his head, blinking against the light, scowling at the screen like he couldn't remember why he grabbed it. "You keep tabs on our jobs, right? After we finish them? Make sure nobody's coming after us?"

"Permanent windows built into their electronic activity, JARVIS puts up red flags when it starts looking hinky. Cash transactions, travel arrangements, new developments in the court cases. But the only real issues lately have all been tied to the Boston PD's quarterly review. Cops trying to bump up their numbers by going over old cases. Like, ah. The warehouse fire."

"Right," Eliot grimaced, deflating a bit, and yeah, it had been the wrong thing to say. But Alec didn't want to talk about it either, even if what he had wasn't much better.

"But yeah, apart from that, it's been quiet. Nothing out of the ordinary."

"Only means whatever's going on, they're good enough to not leave a trail."

If Eliot was trying to goad him, it was working. Alec sat up and reached out for the computer, trying to formulate a list of other parameters he could enter into the equation. Unfortunately, he was still coming up blank once he'd logged in.

Eliot seemed to guess as much. "What you said, I'm just spinning, here, but. People don't get into the vengeance game for nothing. It might be just business for Larson, but whoever hired him, it's personal. And the way they're playing it," Eliot frowned in frustration, like he couldn't find the words. It took him a while to finish. "They're gunning for our family, means we probably took out theirs."

Alec swallowed, training his eyes on the computer, not sure where this weird feeling in his chest was coming from. It might've been from hearing Eliot actually come out and refer to the crew as family, but it might've been from the realization that, yeah, the fallout from their jobs could go that far, even though they'd never gone so far as to go after someone's family. "How can you be so sure?"

"I'm not. But you said it yourself. Count of Monte Cristo. This feel like payback to you? Or revenge?" Eliot spoke quietly, sounding a little like he'd dead-ended, and worse, looked almost ready to admit it.

Thankfully for both of them, Alec Hardison was a genius, and he was starting to get an idea.

"Okay," he said, not yet knowing where his brain was going, but wanting to wipe that expression off Eliot's face. "So. What we're looking for, it would've happened in conjunction to a job. We go in and look at old targets, from there we look at their families, girlfriends. Separations, divorce proceedings, any other shit that could come as a side effect of having their evil plans being thwarted 'cause of what we did..."

Eliot brightened slightly. "That something you can do?"

Alec closed his eyes and refused to look at the clock. The painkillers were working, keeping the ache at bay, and they were making him tired. They were grasping at straws, and this- whatever this turned out to be- might not even be a break in the case, could just be another false lead. But he'd worked with less, and the guilt, if he didn't try, would keep him up all night anyway. "Yeah. Might take a while, though."

"There's still a few cups left in the pot," Eliot suggested.

A few minutes later, he was handing Alec another coffee and sitting on the edge of his bed, sipping his own. Then he asked, "Anything else I can do to help?"

Alec tapped at the keys a few times, just to cover for how thrown he'd been by the question. There wasn't anything for him to do, not really, but the fact that he'd actually offered had Alec wishing otherwise.

"You could keep my ass awake," he eventually decided, before hitting on an idea. "And I'm probably going to need help remembering who the players were, which jobs we've pulled. Start from the beginning, work our way forward."

Eliot grabbed a notepad from the desk, but instead of sitting down, or moving back to his own bed, he came around the other side of Alec's bed. "Easier to track if I can see what you're doing, and Nate's already pissed enough, so…"

Alec felt himself nodding as seventeen bad ideas that would've been fun anyway flashed through his head. Turning back to the computer, he pretended not to notice the dip in the mattress as Eliot sat next to him, just inches away, eyes already on the screen.

"First one was Victor Dubenich," Eliot said, settling back against the headboard as Alec opened the query function. "The aerospace guy. What's he been up to?"


This wasn't one of Eliot's better ideas. He'd made a few notes, sketched out timelines to remind him of the order as they worked through their old cases. Hardison's eyes never deviated from the screen, never shot his way, which would've been a relief it if weren't for the fact that he could feel how tensely Hardison was holding himself.

It might've just been the painkillers wearing off. It might've been Hardison's internal systems trying not to respond to a threat.

Alec leaned over a bit as he angled the screen to show him that while Jenkins was still in prison over the Castleman fiasco, Dufort's lawyers were appealing to have him moved to a low-security facility. The words on the screen didn't mean much, they were moving on, but. The movement, Hardison's shoulder pressing against his own, not flinching away.

Maybe Hardison wasn't as terrified of him as he'd thought.

Or maybe it was just too late at night to be trying to sort this all out.

The next time he was able to focus on the task at hand, he found himself in the very strange position of looking over Hardison's shoulder as he brought up Aimee's case.

Aimee. He hadn't thought about her in a while, and while Hardison focused his search on Alan Foss, the financier who'd burned down the stables. There'd been a flash of her name on the screen, something about a wedding announcement that the computer system had pulled up as an aside, but it hadn't been relevant to the search.

It didn't stop him from wondering what she was up to. Right now, she was probably crashed out with some guy she called "husband" and wasn't thinking about Eliot at all. If she were, though, she probably wouldn't be picturing him barefoot in bed with another guy, wondering if he was sitting too close, rethinking everything he'd said all night, debating again the motivations that had gotten him to this point.

A few minutes of checking for Foss's next of kin, though, and Hardison was shaking his head. Eliot crossed Foss off the list with a bit more vehemence than he'd been expecting.

"So," Hardison said, and this time it was his elbow brushing Eliot's arm as he brought up a new query. "Who's next?"




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