What Else Would You Have Me Be?

Chapter 14

"You sure about this?"

He could understand Eliot's misgivings-they weren't even halfway through the list, yet- but it was nearly five in the morning. He didn't have the energy to explain how he knew. He just did. Still, he forced himself to step back a moment, ran a mental check to make sure he wasn't half dreaming it. "Yeah," he said. "It's him."


The duffel bag sat on the edge of the bed; Nate was staring at it when they came in, and though Parker had removed the screen and was sitting in the open window, the room still reeked of sweat and whiskey.

Alec had never been so glad to have good news in his life, but Eliot was the one who broke it.

"Nate, man. We know who it is."


"Dennis Retzing. Former manager of the family business, and current resident of the Stillwater Halfway House." Hardison turned the screen around so they could see his mug shot. "He was released from prison three months ago, because there wasn't any way to get around the fact that he'd been brought in under entrapment."

Nate's lip curled. "Why are you just telling us this now?"

"Because JARVIS looks for unusual activity, and none of this is unusual," Alec bit back a sharper retort. "Half of the people we put away, they're released within eighteen months, man. You know this."

"Fine," Nate grumbled, blinking bloodshot eyes and trying to get himself back in the game. "So what makes you think it's him?"

"This," Alec brought up another screen, a death certificate registering the heart attack of Henry Retzing. " Dennis was trying to make the case to move him to a better facility, but it went too slowly. Henry died about a year ago, in jail."

"So that's what set him off?" Parker sat down on the edge of the table, craning her neck to see.

"It gets worse," Eliot muttered, waving at Alec, urging him on.

"Randy Retzing was acquitted of all charges, mostly because Dennis and Henry copped to everything, and judging by the court transcripts, it seems that his general incompetence when it came to the family business did the rest. If y'all remember, he wasn't exactly the biggest threat we've gone up against, so he wasn't flagged for monitoring."

"Yeah, okay Hardison. You and I, we're going to have to have a talk about your metrics," Nate said, but the vitriol was gone from his voice.

"Believe me, man, I got the message loud and clear. Anyhow. Randy was broke, his family was in prison, but he still had his trust-fund brat friends to fall back on. Which brings us to six months ago." Alec brought up the other death certificate he'd found. "He overdosed in a friends condo in San Diego."

"Oh." Parker was the only one who spoke. Nobody else quite felt up to it, and Alec couldn't blame them. If they were thinking along the same lines he was, they were probably thinking that yeah. All that? Would be enough to drive a man to this point.

Nate though, was already thinking ahead. "So what do we know about his activities since he's been released?"

"Nothing, really. None of his accounts were accessed, not that there was much of anything in them."

"So how's he doing all this?"

"He had another overseas account that nobody knew about, not even his family. I only managed to find it because he'd signed for a FedEx document about three months back. Seems that even before the little wire fraud that he got busted for, he'd been setting himself up something nice. Made some investments from this account, and," he brought up the financial summary. Parker whistled. "Yeah. He's still got a few million, even after withdrawing a million dollars, which, tracing it along, bring us to the purchase of four plane tickets going into Boston and two coming here, to Phoenix. He also spent a few weeks withdrawing lump cash sums, and I'm pretty sure these were handed off to Larson and his cronies."

"Two tickets?"

"One for Larson, one for himself."

"How'd he know where to find us?"

"That, I don't know," Alec admitted. "Guess you're gonna have something to talk to him about when he calls."


Now that they had a target to aim at, Eliot wanted nothing more than to launch himself directly at it, but there was no getting around the fact that if he didn't get some sleep soon, he'd just end up making a mistake, possibly a dangerous one. And that just wasn't an option.

Nate had suggested that they all try and get a few hours rest, whether he was likely to follow his own advice, Eliot didn't know. Parker seemed content enough to watch cartoons on the suite's television, though Hardison, once Eliot went back to the room, was already crashed out.

Eliot went as far as taking his shoes off before lying down, but beyond that, he didn't remember much beyond the sensation of the mattress underneath him and the alarm clock going off far to soon.

Then it was time to hurry up and wait, and he was slogging back to Nate's suite, slamming back another cup of coffee as he watched Hardison get the phones and computers prepped.

Unfortunately, asking him if he was ready, already, wasn't moving the process along much.

Nate was a complete freakin' mess. Hard to look at, even with the windows open and the sunlight pouring in. It only revealed what Eliot had already known- sweating skin, tense eyes, twitching fingers. It was impossible, however, to tell if he was about to snap, or if he'd done so already. Reading Parker for clues was more useless than usual; she was dozing on the couch, as if the fact that they were about to get a ransom demand wasn't worth getting up for. Everywhere else, though, the adrenaline was surging unevenly, and Eliot wanted to punch something.

He talked himself down for the third time in half an hour, told himself he was saving it up for something useful.

Hardison finally had them up and running with no more than seven minutes to spare.

The phone only rang once before Nate answered.

"This is Nate."

"How lovely for you." The voice was disguised, but he was using one of those hand-held devices, not running it through a filter. He probably didn't know how much of his voice was coming through. Still, though, Eliot probably wouldn't have recognized the sneering manner of speech if he hadn't already known it was Retzing.

"You have the money?"

"I do. Let me talk to Sophie first."

There was a rustling on the line, whatever was happening sounded awkward, and then Sophie whined irritably before speaking.

"Hello, everyone," she said dryly. "I hope you all slept well."

"Sophie," Nate's relief at hearing her voice was palpable, but it was changing to something else already. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. My- forgive me for not mentioning his name, but he's got a gun pointed at my head- my friend and I passed a rather awkward, but thankfully non-violent evening."

"Good, that's good. Ah, Sophie, we're going to do everything he wants, so you just hang in there."

Sophie didn't respond, and a moment later, Retzing's disguised voice was on the line again. "You know she's alive and unharmed. I have no desire to kill her, and though I know your tendencies lead elsewhere, I suggest you play along."

Nate argued, a bold move even though Retzing wasn't nearly the unknown quantity he'd been yesterday. "We don't kill-" Nate's eyes flinched in Eliot's direction as he corrected himself. "We've never set out to kill anyone."

Glaring out the window so he wouldn't have to look anyone in the eye, Eliot wasn't so certain. As if picking up on his brainwaves, Retzing laughed, brittle and electronic.

"But you have, haven't you? Anyhow, this nicely brings us to the point. Sophie is alive, for now, and will stay that way as long as you follow these instructions to the letter."

"I'm listening," Nate said.

"You have one hour to get down past Chandler on Interstate 10, and I suggest you move quickly. You have thirty minutes patch me into your communications system. I'll have my earpiece on, you'll have yours, and we'll have a charming conversation. I'll tell you what you need to do. Of course, if you decide to disobey, Sophie, as distasteful as it is, will come to harm. Do you understand?

"I do."

"Then I'll see you there. One hour."


Nate's expressions were coming too quickly to contemplate, so in between keystrokes, Alec watched Eliot instead.

"I don't like it," Eliot muttered, as soon as Nate hung up.

"Of course you don't," Parker said, hefting the duffel bag experimentally, then dropping it again, at loose ends.

"No, Parker." Nate rubbed a hand over his face. "He's right. This is a trap."

"Probably is," Eliot agreed. "That's not the problem. It's too easy, both sides get away too clean. Means there's something up his sleeve that he's not talkin' about."

"Hardison?" Nate asked. "You able to get anything off of that?"

"Only that he made the call from a hotel out in Mesa, so that's probably where he's been holding Sophie. But I'll bet you anything they're already on the move." He glanced up briefly from the screen. "As far as his instructions go, there's nothing by way of traffic cameras that far out of town. There are a few satellites in the area, though, I should have them online in a bit, here. "

"All right. Any chance you can do that on the road?"

Hardison was already standing, unplugging the laptop, but Nate waved him back to his seat. "Not yet."


"Okay. We've got to move fast," Nate was saying. "Hardison? Get Tara on the phone, I want her waiting in the wings if this all goes to shit. Get her copies of everything you've got on Retzing and Larson, Miller if you've got it." His eyes were sharper than they'd been for days, now, but there was no telling where this was going. "Eliot? Parker? Ah. Go make sure we have everything we need in the van."

Parker's eyes widened; neither of them liked hearing Nate talking in terms of Worst Case Scenarios, but at least going out to the van meant getting out of here and them the illusion that they were doing something.

Eliot had to hurry to keep up.

"How do you think this is going to play out?" she asked, hauling the van door open and crawling inside.

"Wish I knew." He grabbed the crate Parker shoved towards the doorway and hefted it back inside. He'd made three trips before she spoke again.

"You really think Sophie's going to be okay?" Parker wasn't usually the type to ask for reassurances. Then again, she'd been in close quarters with Nate all night, and he'd been broadcasting worry and rage at an astounding volume.

"I'll make sure of it," Eliot promised, though he knew why they were making room. The back of the van was cramped enough without people trying to crowd in to treat injuries. Parker, thinking along the same lines, brought several bottles of water and another stack of towels from inside the hotel, shoving them in the corner in back as if preparing for blood was something they did every day.

For the most part, they worked silently, efficiently. It was cruel to think it, but Parker did always work best under pressure.

Suppose hanging off the edges of buildings gets you used to life or death.

He had to stop thinking like this before the others came down. Parker could deal, sure, bloody fatalism came naturally to her, but Nate? Hardison? This was going to be a bad scene. He didn't need them losing their nerve before they'd even got started.

Best to be quietly prepared for the worst, anyway. No need to draw their attention to it.


Alec had gotten Tara on the phone, but Nate had taken over, explaining what was going on.

It wasn't hard to notice that nothing resembling a sane plan ever really came up, especially with Tara's angry tone audible even from across the room. Nate looked like he was thinking about throwing his cell out the window.

Thing is, she's right.

This wasn't a plan. This was walking into a trap, which only resembled a plan insofar as they were deciding to do it in advance. It didn't matter how loudly Nate argued with Tara, it was still Retzing calling the shots.

If it weren't for the insane glint in Nate's eye as he ended the call, Alec might've called him on it.


They'd been on Interstate 10 for twenty minutes when there was a click on the comms line. Eliot glanced out the window, checked his mirrors. Odds were, Retzing was in a car, not too far away. Probably following from a distance.

"Hello, Dennis," Nate ground out, but over the comms, without line of sight on the expression he wore, his voice sounded more glib than nervous. It was a strong opening.

But not strong enough.

"Ah, so you've figured it out. Not that I thought you were completely incompetent, but, you never know."

"Which makes me wonder why you weren't straight with us from the start," Nate shrugged. "You had to know we'd get there." This wasn't as strong a play, even as a means to buy time. It wasn't as if Nate didn't already know the answer, though Retzing explained it anyway.

"Because this way, I'm inside your head. Admit it, Ford, you've been running just to keep up for days now. I wanted you to really think about what you'd done. That's all this is about. Tell me, Nate. What would you do if your family was destroyed?"

"Only thing you've got working in your favor is the fact that it hasn't been. You should be grateful."

"You and I both know that's not true. Look around you, Ford. The faces of your team. How're they doing? Confident? The usual happy-go-lucky attitudes riding high?"

Eliot glanced back in the rearview to scan their faces. Parker looked wired, like she was about to burst out of her skin at the slightest provocation. Hardison was nervous, watching Nate's anger out of the corner of his eye as he pretended to work on his laptop. Looking back to the road again, Eliot tried to decide what he was feeling right now.

Honestly? He wanted to kill Retzing. Beyond that, there was nothing.

Nate wasn't answering Retzing's jibes, which was a good move. No need confirming anything. Retzing was just fishing, even if he wasn't that far off. All this had shaken things up. Too soon, yet, to tell how it would all fall out.

"So how're we going to play this?" Nate asked.

"Get off at Highway One and head south on St. Peters one mile. Toss the cash out of the window and continue on for another half mile. You will not stop your vehicle until you've reached that point, and you will at no point turn around. Do you understand?"

"I hear you."

"Good. I'll pull up, grab the money, and let your precious Sophie out of the car once I see that you've held up your end of the bargain. She will then walk to your vehicle. If I see it moving even an inch in our direction before she's reached you, well. I've got our friend Donovan here, with me. He's a good shot."

"What, no face to face handoff?" Eliot flinched at the boldness of Nate's words, glancing sideways at Nate. This was just stupid, goading Retzing like this, especially since he'd just admitting to having firearms in the same vehicle as Sophie. But Nate shook his head as his eyes met Eliot's. "You're kind of limiting your chances for one last shot at revenge, here."

"Honestly, Nate? If I got within ten feet of you, I'd probably just kill you. But unlike some, I'm not a murderer. Just never had the heart for it."

"So this. All this, it's not about the money, it's just about making us squirm."

"Yes. And showing you a tiny bit of what I could do, if I wanted to. What I will do, if I get even the tiniest suspicion that you're in the same time zone as me."

Nate nearly laughed. "I gotta say, Dennis. You're good. I'd hire you on myself if the feeling wasn't mutual."

"I'll take that as a compliment, then."


While Nate talked with Retzing, Alec went stared at his screen until he was sure that he had it. Tapping Nate on the arm, he waited for his nod before motioning for Eliot and Parker to take out their earbuds.

"Satellite signal's weak out here, but I managed to get the imagery of the area we're heading to. Nothing there by way of cover, it's just the usual county roads criss-crossing at one mile intervals. A few shallow drainages and a little scrub brush, but that's it. On the plus side, there's nowhere for him to hide in wait. On the minus side, there's nowhere for us to hide, either. No cars out there as of five or so minutes ago."

"He's got to be a lot closer than that. Probably following us," Eliot muttered. When Alec blinked in confusion, he pointed at is ear, then glanced out the rearview again. "Don't these things need a relay for anything larger than a mile or so?"

"Ah, yeah, if we're going off the cell towers," Alec paused, watching Nate pull his earbud out with a grimace. Apparently he and Retzing had run out of things to talk about. "But there aren't any out here, we're on a satellite relay. He could be anywhere in the western states and still hear us."

Eliot's scowl deepened, but he said nothing. Just kept driving. Another ten minutes and they'd be there.


Everything they'd found out about Retzing, and none of it mattered. There was still too much they didn't know. Hardison's intel had been right, there was almost nothing here beyond a shallow ditch running parallel to the road, about 200 meters to the west. It wasn't much, but it would've provided enough cover for a sniper, had Retzing not opted to have Larson riding shotgun instead.

Smart move, that. It was much more maneuverable.

There was no way Retzing could make a kill box in so open an area, but it was so wide open that there was no controlling any impending action, either. They'd have to play this straight.

The knowledge didn't keep Eliot from scanning, looking for anything they could turn to their advantage as he slowed the van down.

"Parker?" Nate reached back for the duffel bag she'd been holding in her lap, and for once, she didn't complain when the money left her hands. As they began to cross, Nate shoved it out the window.

"Okay, Retzing," Nate said. "We've made the drop."

One mile later, Eliot stopped the van.


Eliot and Nate had adjusted the rearview mirrors to watch the bag. Alec craned his neck, looking over Eliot's shoulder to see, but couldn't be sure what he was looking at was a duffel bag full of money or road kill.

They waited for what felt like a very long time. There wasn't enough air in the van, even with the windows open, but nobody complained. Nobody said anything at all.

Then he saw it. A silver sedan, floating in the water mirage at the horizon before coming to land on the road and slowing down. Parker smacked him on the arm, not realizing that he'd seen, and up front, Nate began muttering to himself.

"There they are… slowing down, okay. I think that's Larson getting out."

Alec could just make him out, stepping from the passenger side of the car and crouching in the road, prodding the bag with the end of his rifle before opening it. A moment later, he raised the rifle, some sort of signal, and Sophie was climbing out, stepping onto the road.

It took a few moments of watching to realize that she wasn't walking freely, and it wasn't until Nate began to shake his head that Alec realized something was wrong. More wrong.

"She's moving slow."

Eliot was watching as well. "Think she's being cautious?"

"I don't. She's-" Nate's hand was on the handle, he was about to open the door when Eliot slammed the locks down. Nate spun to glare at him.

"No. We don't move. You least of all."

"Retzing only said that the van couldn't move."

"You think that'll stop him from telling Larson to shoot? No. I don't like it either, but, we're here until they're gone. And you're the last target, Nate. They've fucked with every one of us, you're the only one left."

Nate frowned, considering, and might've acquiesced had Sophie not stumbled in the road behind them in that same moment. "You don't call the shots, Eliot." Unlocking his door, he jumped out, shoving his earbud in as he ran.

"Fuck," Eliot tried grabbing after him, but Nate had already cleared the back of the van by the time he'd gotten his seatbelt undone. "Damn it!"

"It's okay," Alec realized. In the rearview, he could see Nate running towards Sophie, but he could also see that the car was starting to pull away. There was no doubt that Retzing and Larson, at least, had had the foresight to bring binoculars. They wouldn't have missed it. "They're leaving."

It took Eliot a moment to be convinced, but he began to edge the car forward.

"You might want to give the two of them some space," Alec muttered, even as he found himself unable to tear his eyes from Nate and Sophie's progress.

Eliot smirked, then hit the breaks again.

There was a click on the line, someone tapping back into the comms. It wasn't Nate.

"This is what you get. Watching your family die, and being powerless to prevent it."

And the first shots rang out.


"What the hell?" Hardison shouted as they felt the second tire burst and the van listed even more towards the left.

Eliot swung his head left. The second shot had taken out the driver's side front tire as well. There was no way it had come from the car just disappearing over the horizon, it had to be coming from the ditch.

Fuck, he couldn't see anything. Enough dust had been kicked up by the cars that it was useless as an indicator.

"Sophie's down!" Parker shouted, launching herself forward into Nate's seat.

"Hit, or hitting the ground?"

"Can't tell, Nate-"

From this angle, watching in the rearview inside the van, they were at the worst possible angle to watch what was actually happening. Nate, fucking idiot that he was, wasn't ducking. He was running towards Sophie.

"He's just going to draw more fire," Eliot muttered, twisting the wheel. They wouldn't get far like this, but they could close the distance, maybe block the sniper's shot if he could figure out where in the ditch he was hiding.

Parker was leaning close, trying to look out his window. "Who's shooting?"

"Larson's not the only one on the payroll," Eliot ground out, not wanting to get into trajectories and the impossibility of the second shot. "Shooter's in the ditch. Parker. In the back. Both of you. Stay low."

He realized, as he managed to pull the van around, the wheel rims grinding in the gravel, that he was only opening up the right side of the van as a target. Odds were, those tires would be shot out in a moment as well.

He drove as fast as he could, fighting the pull of the van, keeping it on the road as best he could. More shots were coming, but apparently the sniper wasn't great at hitting moving targets. It was the closest thing they had to an advantage right now. Up ahead, Nate was realizing the same, getting to his feet again at breaking into a run.

At least he hadn't been shot.


It took forever to catch up with him, and it was a risk coming to a stop to pull him into the back. Eliot pretended not to hear Hardison mumbling to himself, sweet talking the van.

"I know you're just a rental, baby, but I know your model, your make. You come from a very strong line, you can do this."

Maybe it was working. Their stop had cost them the front side passenger tire, not to mention the glass shattering into the front seat as the bullet lodged into the roof just above Eliot's head. Nate was trying to climb up in front anyway, and if it weren't for Parker grabbing him and yanking him backwards, he probably would've made it.

"Go," was all he said. Over and over again as he peered out the windshield.

Sophie was only twenty or thirty meters out when the final tire blew, but she was clambering up to a low, awkward crouch, trying to rush to meet them. It was only when she was upright that they could see why she'd stumbled. Her ankles were tied together, and so were her wrists.

Nate was jumping out the back of the van before Eliot had stopped it completely, but he didn't bother trying to stop him this time. Another shot skidded across the road, just in front of the van, gouging the gravel, creating a line that pointed back exactly to where the sniper was hiding.


As soon as Nate got Sophie in the back, Alec was there with the knife Parker had tossed him, cutting her free.

"Are you okay?" Nate was stuck on repeat, carefully taking her hands, touching her feet as he looked, searching for injuries. Sophie was nodding, but her eyes were wide and frightened, and she didn't say much of anything at all, just hugged Nate back fiercely.

It got a little voyeuristic after about ten seconds, though Parker seemed not to mind, and there was still the matter of the sniper, still shooting at them.

It wasn't until he turned to ask Eliot what he thought they should do next, that he noticed that Eliot was gone.


Eliot ran, dodging from right to left to further right then straight on again, as randomly and as fast as he could. He'd done this before, once in Bosnia, then Iraq, but both times there'd been more cover, somewhere to stop, think, catch his breath.

He'd breathe when he was done. Another bullet sprayed the gravel less than a foot to his right, it took every ounce of training he had to not swerve away from it. The sniper would be expecting it, and indeed, was- the next shot went wide, off to the left, safely ahead of him.

The sniper was learning, though, the shots were missing in on a narrower and narrower margin each time, but he was gaining distance.

At this point, he could take a shot and still make it down there to strangle the guy with his bare hands before the shock set in. If he had to.

He was pretty sure the bullet that tore through his arm was just taking him up on his dare, but he was coming up on the cut bank of the ditch.

In just a few more steps, he'd be throwing himself over it.


"Fucking hell. Eliot!" Alec shouted, tapping at his comms again, but he still wasn't getting a response. Eliot as he sprinted, and probably wouldn't be in a talking mood anyway. "He's gonna get himself killed," he pointed as Parker crawled up into the front to look. The sniper was still shooting, so far, it looked like he was still missing, but Eliot's body jerked, there, right then, just a little. Maybe he was dodging bullets.

Maybe he wasn't.


"What d'we do? Nate, man, what-"

"We don't go out there after him," Nate said, grabbing his arm and pulling it away from the door handle. Alec hadn't even realized he'd placed it there, but now that he had, he could feel the glass shards grinding their way into his hand.

He tore his eyes away in time to see Eliot diving over the edge, falling out of sight.

And then?

One final crack of the rifle. Then nothing.

Alec counted to thirty before leaning towards Nate. He didn't turn to look. He couldn't tear his eyes away from where Eliot had gone over. "Now what do we do?"

Parker snorted in frustration, shoving up next to him to get a better look.

"Hardison," Sophie called, rummaging around the supplies in back. "Didn't we have binoculars in here?"

"They were in one of the crates," Parker explained. "The ones we didn't need."

"Oh, damn. Why did you…" opening the second box of medical supplies, her eyes narrowing in accusation. "You knew someone was going to get hurt."

"It was a distinct possibility, yes," Nate said, and climbed into the front seat.

Alec was the only one who saw the new worry spreading on Sophie's face, and he tried to smile reassuringly.

He was pretty sure he failed.

"What was that?" Parker was waving her hand, quieting them, but Alec he shook his head; Nate and Sophie did the same. There might've been something, but it could've been the wind. But whatever it was, it sounded like it was coming from the ditch,

It was enough, apparently, to goad Parker into action. She jumped out of the van.

"Hardison, come on," she shouted, already moving towards the ditch.

"What- no. Hang on." Screw it. Sitting around here ain't doing you any good. "Hold up," he said, clambering out after her. He walked as quickly as he could- realizing once he was out in the open that he was more or less a sitting duck- and kept his eyes and ears on the ditch ahead.

Parker seemed torn between running ahead and waiting for him, so she was cutting the difference. Fast steps interspersed with tense pauses, ready to listen, ready to dodge whatever came her way. Alec doubted his own abilities to do the same. But the alternative was to let her get even further ahead.

They'd made it halfway with no action, though he thought he could hear it now, the noise. It sounded like a small motor. The wind shifted again, and he could hear the whine again more clearly. Definitely a small engine, almost like a-

Like a chainsaw.

No. No, no way.

He shouted Eliot's name, but there was no response.

They slowed as they neared the edge, Parker dropping into a crouch, Hardison unable to do more than stoop as he walked.

The first thing he saw was the spinning rear wheel of the motorcycle.

Not a chainsaw, then. Thank you.

Parker was closer to the ledge, but she was standing up, waving for him to follow as she began to pick her way down. It was only when he got closer to the edge that he could look down to see Eliot.

He was crouched over Dennis Retzing. Not doing anything, just staring. He raised his head, startled, when Parker called his name, and when he moved, Alec could see why.

One leg still stuck under the dirt bike, Retzing was sprawled, his face bloody. His neck was at a sharply awkward angle, and he wasn't moving.


He hadn't meant to kill him. He'd just wanted him to stop.

The fight had been rougher than Eliot would've expected, given what he remembered of Retzing, but it had been two years. Retzing had been working out, more muscle than dough now, and though he hadn't been skilled, he'd been determined.

Eliot hadn't been ready for the bike when he'd come crashing down into the ditch, and after rolling awkwardly to avoid crashing into the motorbike, he'd been off balance. Retzing'd had the advantage, getting in a good shot to Eliot's jaw with the but of the rifle, but he'd given it up almost right away. Instead of hitting him again, he'd swung the rifle around, trying to aim in too small a space.

He'd gotten a few good punches in while they wrestled for the rifle, though it did go off, once, before Eliot managed to grab it and toss it out of the ditch. As they'd grappled, Eliot realized that Retzing had an ankle holster, and he'd been trying to get at it when Retzing's boot connected with Eliot's injured arm.

Eliot recovered quickly, but by then Retzing had thrown himself at the bike, kick starting it hard.

His plan had been obvious enough. Wheels, a gun, and sitting ducks out on the road.

He'd launched himself after Retzing, but the bike had been moving by the time Eliot caught up to him, heading towards the gradual rise a few yards north, on the other side of the cut bank.

It had been a hell of a catch. He'd gotten him around the shoulder, pulling back with enough force to bring him down off the bike, but the bike had come with him, spinning out and rearing up from underneath, the throttle gunning in Retzing's grip as the handlebar caught him in the temple, hard enough to force his neck back sharply.

If death wasn't instantaneous, it had been close. Eliot was still trying to sort it all out in his head.

But now Hardison and Parker were here, and any minute now, he'd have to explain it.


Eliot was staring up at them like he didn't know what to make of the two of them standing here, so Alec did the first thing that came to mind. He tapped his earpiece and called for Nate.

"Hey, we got him. Eliot's…ah, he's-" It was then that he noticed all the blood on his arm. "He's still standing. Retzing, though. Don't look like he made it."

"What happened?"

"Not sure yet. There's a motorcycle down here, and." He looked at Eliot, who was reaching over to shut off the bike and waving his hands back towards the van. "Uh. Right. We're comin' to you."

"Tara's only about a minute out. You guys just get back here, now."

"Hey guys," he called, jutting his thumb over his shoulder. "Nate wants us back at the van. Tara's on route."

The two of them climbed up out of the ditch, Eliot moving fast, clearly not wanting to talk about it, or maybe just in a rush to find out what Nate had to say, there was no way of knowing. Alec didn't want to think too hard on the look in his eye when he'd passed.

Parker fell into step with him easily enough, frowning after Eliot. Up on the road, Tara's car was approaching the bullet-ridden van.


"Eliot? You alright?"

"I'm fine. Sophie?"

Nate nodded towards the back of the van, and when Eliot stepped around, he found Sophie sitting in the open back door, head down, hands over her ears. After a moment, she raised her head.

"Are you okay?" It was a stupid question. He could see the rope marks on her ankles and wrists.

"Asks the man who just got shot," she said wryly, smiling tiredly. "This isn't winding up to be one of our more shining exploits, is it? But yes. I'm fine, these," she held out her hands, "are minor, and the worst extent of it. How badly are you hurt? It seems we've got more bandages than-"

It was completely insane, but Eliot found himself grinning, grabbing her in a hug before she could finish.

"I'm so damned glad to see you, Soph. You don't even know."

Nate and Tara came around the side of the van, Nate looking more like himself than he had in days, smirking when he found the two of them.

"Okay. We need all of you in Tara's car. The police are on their way. And the sheriff's department. You need to be gone before they get here."


"You got here fast," Sophie was saying, up front as Tara sped south. Hardison found himself leaning in against Parker- he didn't have far to go, crammed as they were in the back seat like this-to hear them over the open window.

"Fast fast," Parker agreed. On the other side of her, Eliot didn't even seem to be listening. He was leaning towards the window, trying to keep the blood off the back of the seat. His shirt was stained all the way down to the elbow, and from the look on his face, it hurt like a bitch. Alec tried hard not to think about it, but just because nobody was talking about it didn't mean it was there.

"Nate wanted me to meet up with you back in town, after you'd gotten out, said he had something for me to do," Tara was telling Sophie, and it probably had something to do with the files Alec had sent earlier. "Only, I gotta say, he was kind of a mess when he called. So I tracked Nate's phone and followed you out here, in case he decided to do something stupid. I was already pulling off the interstate when he called."

"So what're we doing, anyhow?" Alec wasn't sure, but he thought he heard sirens in the distance. "You and Nate got some big plan?"

"Oh yeah," Tara rolled her eyes, smirking. "There's a rest area a few miles up the road. You and Sophie can get cleaned up, and then, well. We wait."


They had the rest stop to themselves, which at least spared them the effort of sneaking in without being noticed by a carload of tourists. Parker and Tara had gone ahead with Sophie to help her get cleaned up, and Eliot was pondering the tendencies of women to travel to the bathroom in packs when he noticed Hardison staring at him again.

Here it comes.

During the drive, he'd tried to rehearse. He was even pretty sure that it would come out right, but now, here, standing in the parking lot? He really wasn't sure how he was going to convince Hardison that he hadn't meant to kill Retzing. It had been an accident. There hadn't been anything he could do about it.


Hardison had his computer bag over his shoulder and was tossing the first aid kit from hand to hand, nervously, barely looking in his direction. It might've been the adrenaline wearing off.

"Ah. Your arm. Don't know if it's as bad as it looks, but. It looks awkward. I mean. Painful, yeah, but. Anyway, you want some help with that?"

Eliot frowned. He'd been expecting a fight.

Maybe that would come later.

"I've dealt with worse," he said, reaching out for the kit and almost missing the concerned look on Hardison's face. He changed his mind. "But yeah. One handed is a bitch."

Inside, Eliot pulled the shirt over his head and threw it in the sink. Nothing about it was salvageable, but it was what he had. If he cut the sleeves off, it would be enough until they got back to the hotel. In the mirror as he turned on the water, he caught Hardison staring at his arm. He looked ill.

"Look, man, you don't have to-"

"It's cool," Hardison said, much too quickly as he shook himself into action, setting out bandages and disinfectant. "Just. Not used to guns. Bullets. You know how it is."

As he unscrewed the cap, Hardison's hands suddenly began to shake, the contents splashing out over his fingers.

It wasn't a good sign. Eliot scanned him over, looking for signs of injury. For all he knew, the van wasn't bulletproof, maybe he'd caught one. "Hey. You all right?"

"Me?" Hardison wiped his hands on his jeans. "Yeah, man. I'm cool."

He was quiet, though, and that was the thing. By the time Eliot had finished splashing water up his arm and rinsing out the gash as best he could, Hardison had it back under control. Or seemed to, at least. When it came time to bandage Eliot's arm, he avoided looking anywhere else.

He was helping him, for now, but the fight was coming. Something in him wanted to twinge at the thought of it.

When Hardison opened his mouth, Eliot was ready for it. Instead, what he got was a full on Hardison breakdown.

"Don't fucking do that, okay? Running off like that toward the guy with the gun. You know how it plays out in the movies? It ain't like that. The guy that tries to be the hero just gets shot."

"No kidding," Eliot smirked, not knowing what else to do, and shifted his arm as Hardison did another pass with the bandage. When he fastened it into place, it was tighter than it probably needed to be, but he could redo it later.

If he was being honest with himself, a few stitches wouldn't hurt, but they could wait.

"I'm serious," Hardison said, after a minute. He still hadn't let go of his arm, and when Eliot glanced up, he found him he was staring off at the middle of the floor. His grip was getting tighter, and his breath was coming way to fast.

"Hey, man," he pulled his arm away, and Hardison let go, but the freaked expression didn't leave. He was panicking, and his hand still hung in space between them, awkward. "What's up?"

He was trying to pull it together, and that's what really did it. The fact that Hardison had to. All because of this fucked up day. Week. Month. The adrenaline was wearing off and his brain was kicking in and he was just figuring out how fucked up life could get.

Eliot grabbed his forearm, shook him a bit.

Part of this was probably his fault, anyhow.

"Look, I'm sorry. I didn't plan for it to go down that way." And he hadn't. He really hadn't, but the alternative had been worse. He wasn't sure that Hardison was listening, but the sooner they cleared it up, the better. "Choice was either to let him head back after you guys, or to stop him. So I stopped him."

Hardison was nodding, but his eyes seemed more determined than ever to avoid Eliot's and his voice was shaking. "I know." He nodded to himself. "Nate's got a plan. He'll take care of it. You got out clean."

That wasn't the point, not at all, and there went that weird winching sensation in his chest again.

Hardison wasn't supposed to get like this. He was supposed to bitch and moan and make jokes, not be on the verge of tears in some rest-stop bathroom. Not over the possibility of Eliot getting caught.

Then again, Eliot wasn't supposed to give a damn, either. But here he was, pulling on Hardison's arm, stepping close. Actually wrapping his good arm around him.

It was just supposed to be for a second. For morale.

Then Hardison hugged him back. One arm, then the other. His shirt wasn't anything special, just another T with obnoxious designs splattered all over the front. But Eliot could feel the plastic of the paint against his chest, sticking slightly, and beyond that, Hardison's heart trying to bash its way through his ribcage.

"Hey. It's cool," he tried. "Nate'll think of something." Because he would. Because that was the team's job, now, cleaning up the dead bodies. His dead bodies. "And we got Sophie back. That's the important thing, okay?"

"And you got shot. Because that's what you do." Hardison muttered, finally pulling away just enough to look Eliot squarely in the face. But he wasn't moving far.

Either are you.

And this was turning into something else entirely. Right?

Hardison's hand was still on his bare side. It was suddenly too damned intimate.

But fuck it. Today had already gone balls up. He swallowed. And realized he had absolutely no idea what the fuck he was going to say, no idea how, or even what he'd mean if he tried.

But Hardison was making an attempt.

"Hey, ah. Eliot? I don't. Fuck. I don't know. Don't hit me, but." He was babbling, but Eliot wasn't sure he'd be able to do any better. But he knew what this was, now, and that was everything. All he'd have to do was take half a step forward, hold on just a bit tighter. It would be so easy. "Am I reading this right? I mean, you're. We're. And it's-"

He had to close his eyes to think about it, just for a second. He'd already fucked up once today, massively, and if he did it again-


Hardison was stretched to the edge, he was about to snap. And Eliot's dithering wasn't helping either of them.

He leaned forward and up, just enough that Hardison could take the hint or back out if he wanted to, but there was no resistance, here, just Hardison's hands on his back again and his shirt on Eliot's skin and a flash of something coming back online in his eyes.


Holy shit holy shit holyshit.

Eliot was kissing him. Eliot was letting him kiss back, and stubble felt a lot more, up close like this. And right, he didn't want to get carried away here- more than he already was, 'cause this was insane- but hell. He'd never first-kissed anyone like this, open-mouthed and content and lazy, easy like they knew where this was going, like they weren't just stumbling into it in the middle of a rest stop bathroom.

Like any minute some trucker wouldn't just wander in here, looking at them and freaking out because of the bloody shirt in the sink- and yeah, he should really see if he had a spare in the computer bag, because Eliot's was toast and Tara was good, but she probably didn't carry men's shirts around in her suitcase- but Eliot's skin was bare under his hands, still warmer than the rest of the room- no surprise there, the way he ran hot, hell, Alec could feel his arms burning through the back of his shirt and it was totally the wrong thing to be getting hung up on because-


This was Eliot Spencer, here, up against him, pushing back just a little, but not fighting, so damned insistent. His hair was brushing over the back of Alec's hand, just a bit and he chased it up underneath to where it was damp-

-and that, there, that was Eliot's tongue, just barely brushing against his own, nice as you please, smiling right up against his mouth, before kissing small again, once, before easing just out of reach.

Eliot was rolling his jaw just a bit, stretching it out. The bruise was just starting to really set in, and reality was following, not far behind.

But hell, they'd just made out in a rest stop bathroom. Alec could take some liberties. He could out and brush his fingers against it if he wanted to.

Eliot rolled his eyes when he noticed the concern, but he leaned in against Alec's hand, just a bit. "Don't worry about it," Eliot said, but he wasn't moving. "I'm fine."

"I wasn't," Alec realized as he said it that it was actually true. "Just. Yeah." And he wasn't an idiot. He knew that in about three seconds all this was either going to get unbearably awkward, or come crashing down entirely.

So he smirked. "We just did that. Which is awesome." His own voice echoed off the tiles. He hadn't noticed it before. "But the ladies are gonna come looking soon, and…"

"Relax. They'll probably spend an hour on Sophie's hair."

Eliot stepped back, then, but if he kept looking at him like that, they were going to end up rolling around on the bathroom floor.

Right over by the urinals.


Chapter 13 ~~~~~~~~ Back to Leverage ~~~~~~~~                 



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